Assessed by any standard, John Corigliano is among the most significant, successful artists America has produced. A composer of substance and unmistakable style, Corigliano has produced works over the past half-century and more that have garnered critical praise and popular acclaim; earned many of the world’s most prominent awards, including several Grammys, an Academy Award, and the Pulitzer Prize; and stood the test of time.
Corigliano turns 80 on February 16, and numerous cultural institutions are planning to celebrate. National Sawdust leads the way that evening with a program built around Mr. Tambourine Man, Corigliano’s audacious song cycle employing as its poetry lyrics by Bob Dylan. National Sawdust will host two further chamber-music concerts on April 7 and May 23.
Naturally, the two institutions where Corigliano has long served as a teacher are getting in on the action. The Juilliard School honors Corigliano with a performance of his Violin Concerto (“The Red Violin”) on February 19, with Jeffrey Milarsky conducting the Juilliard Orchestra and Alice Ivy-Pemberton as soloist. And Lehman College, in the Bronx, presents a lively mix of chamber works on February 22, in a concert benefitting the school’s John Corigliano Scholarship Fund.
In fact, when Corigliano recently spoke to National Sawdust Log in the Upper West Side apartment he shares with his longtime partner, the composer and librettist Mark Adamo, already he knew more than he could reveal. In a press conference that followed on February 13, the New York Philharmonic announced its first season under the leadership of music director Jaap van Zweden, in which Corigliano looms large. Coming in the season ahead: performances of the complete Red Violin score with Joshua Bell, played in conjunction with the film (Oct. 16-20); performances of the landmark Symphony No. 1 conducted by Van Zweden (May 30, June 1); and a late-night program curated by Corigliano himself (June 1). The passion with which Van Zweden spoke of Corigliano during the press conference was palpable.
Plans are in hand at other major institutions, as well, Corigliano hinted. But as he spoke at length in a room papered practically wall-to-wall with awards and honors – with an imposing shelf of familiar statuettes off to one side – he focused on illuminating the works in the programs close at hand, which span his creative life to date.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: There are three concert events coming up at National Sawdust, two happening elsewhere, and then we’ll go fishing. The first program is largely built around Mr. Tambourine Man. Extracting Dylan’s lyrics without those canonical tunes, and treating them like literature, like raw material for new settings… at the time it seemed audacious. But now, with Dylan’s Nobel Prize having happened, you seem positively prescient. What emboldened you to take on this project?
JOHN CORIGLIANO: Sylvia McNair was doing a song recital in 2000, and Carnegie Hall wanted to commission a major composer to write a major work for her. They asked me, and I said to myself, I don’t want to set the Emily Dickinson/[Walt] Whitman standard set of what you do. Sylvia said, I want it to be an American, and I said, I agree with you, it will be. But I also said to myself, could there be a poet that reaches everybody? Could we find somebody who reaches young people who do not read the poets of the 19th century or early 20th century? So I just said that to friends: Do you know anybody who reaches everybody? And one person said to me, Bob Dylan does. I said, he’s a songwriter, and he said, well, his lyrics are magnificent.
Now, I had never really heard Bob Dylan, because to be honest, the music did not draw me to it. If I heard it in a coffee shop, I would be talking to somebody, and the three chords played and the voice singing just didn’t take my ear – like the Beatles did, for example.
And in Dylan’s case, for many his voice itself is a divisive instrument.
Yes. So I just didn’t know those songs. I looked online and found that there was a book of his lyrics. I got the book and started reading them, and some of them were, of course, not settable at all… the “hey, babe” kind of lyric. But there were some masterful things, really masterful – I agree with the Nobel people. And I thought, this is perfect: They were built to be songs, so the form of them really works for me. They’re very biting about contemporary life; I’m really interested in that.
I constructed a seven-song cycle, 35 minutes long, which starts with a prelude and ends with a postlude. There are five songs in the middle, from “Clothes Line,” where he basically talks about his family and taking in the clothes, and there was some news that the Vice President went mad, and the mother said, well, we can’t do anything about it, and they “shut all the doors,” is the last line.
Then “Blowing in the Wind”: that poem is about how can you ignore these things, this injustice happening? And therefore it was a poem about awakening to the political climate and doing something about it. The third song of the five is the most ferocious; it’s called “Masters of War,” and I’ve never read a more savage poem in my life. It was about the people who make the guns, and how he wants to stand on their graves and make sure they’re dead.
After that, “All Along the Watchtower” is about two characters, the Joker and the Thief, and they’re plotting this absolute upsetting of the world above them, who sit on the watchtower and look peacefully into the sunset. And all of a sudden, these characters spring up at the end. When I finally did hear Bob Dylan’s recording of it, there were not two characters. I made a piece of music where the Joker had a kind of music of his own, and the Thief had another kind of music, and you could converse back and forth. I really thought of them as characters on the underside of this society, making it creak.
The next and last one is “Chimes of Freedom,” which, like Whitman, is a grand poem about winning the war for justice, and how the chimes of freedom will ring. That’s the five songs, and then the prelude is “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which sets the scene of the ’60s, the psychedelic scene of the ’60s, and the song at the end is “Forever Young,” which is almost a cappella. There’s the tiniest of accompaniment, occasionally.
To me, it makes a real shape, and that’s what I look for in music, is architecture. This had an architecture of the poems. Then, of course, we had to get permission, and it was very hard to convince the people who guard Bob Dylan of what we were doing. They thought we were arranging his songs, with his music, and I said, no, we’re not using his music. I said, look, if Goethe writes a poem and Schumann wants to set it or Brahms wants to set it, they set the same poem differently. I’m not going to set it like Bob Dylan; I’m going to set it as great poetry – which is what I think it is – with my completely different way of thinking. My concert brain is going to set it a different way.
There are a few more songs on that program.
They’re two of the cabaret songs I wrote with Mark. “Dodecaphonia” started the whole cabaret thing for us. I said, I’ve always wanted to write a torch song called “They Call Me 12-Tone Rose.” Mark loved it, and he laughed. We didn’t do it for a while, and then evidently Joan Morris heard about it, and, you know, Bill [Bolcom] and Joan love to do cabaret songs. She wrote me a card and said, “Do you want to make a diva beg?” [Laughs] I had to get to work. It was not a commission; it was just to do it. Mark wrote this extraordinary, funny lyric about this detective who’s searching for this creature, Twelve-Tone Rose, who seduces even Bernstein and Copland. It has all sorts of things that we thought would only be funny to composers and musicians – things like “she’ll never repeat the same tone twice” – and audiences loved it.
So we did another one [“Marvelous Invention”] about the iPhone, the whole idea of a woman who basically is on the phone with her friend, and they were supposed to go to a concert that night. And she’s saying, there’s no reason to go to the concert, because I have this wonderful new toy. She has “Joshua Bell playing all Ravel,” and so forth… it’s all about contemporary musicians. Even me: “Malfitano singing Corigliano with Robert Spano on piano.” He just went on and on, and had a ball.
The last one [“End of the Line”] was a rather sad poem about the lack of music stores, record stores, and everything else. It’s about people who are standing in line throughout history to buy records, to be with other people enthusiastic about things, and that they got smaller and smaller and smaller. And finally, it’s a coffee shop, and people are all watching screens and listening separately online, and it’s about the end of the social idea of music.
They’re not doing all three of them; they’re doing two. Lindsay [Kesselman], who’s a wonderful singer, felt it was just too exhausting – the Bob Dylan songs are exhausting – and she said, “Can we do two of them?” I agree with her; I want her to have energy in this, and Bob Dylan takes a lot of energy.
Completing the program, I like the juxtaposition of the quite recent Winging It, which you wrote for Ursula Oppens in 2008, and Etude Fantasy, which dates back to 1976.
Right, I wrote it for the Bicentennial.
Do you find a marked difference between the way you composed in 1976 and the improvisations you transcribed for Ursula in 2008? Or is it the same essential language, just produced through different methods?
Well, there are things that are the same basic language. I had a very interesting discussion in this room with a composer from Philadelphia, Leonardo Balada. I said, “I don’t care about style; I don’t have a style.” And he said, “But you do.” He told me to get the music of Etude Fantasy and Fantasia on an Ostinato. Now, the Fantasia on an Ostinato was for the Cliburn Competition, and it was basically based on Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, the second movement. All the harmonies are that: the major-minor turns and all that. Then Etude Fantasy opens with an etude in which the entire elements of the whole fantasy are laid out, but it’s for left hand alone.
He said, “Now, look at this passage for left hand alone” – it was a major passage of playing a certain note and going above the note with two notes, and then switching to the thumb and going below the note in two notes. And he said, “Look at the climax of Fantasia on an Ostinato,” based on Beethoven: the same notes, the same pitches, derived from the major-minor chords of Beethoven, was the climax of the piece. He said, “Did you know that?” I said I had no idea! He said, “That’s your style: the things you don’t know.” It’s like signing your name – you have a signature, and other people might try to forge it and it’s not the same thing.
Those are the decisions a composer does not make. We make a decision that we’re going to work with a 12-tone scheme or with a tonal scheme or with a minimalist idea of things progressing and slowly changing, and those are things we have control over. We have no control over our personal style. It was a great lesson to me.
The second National Sawdust program is built around the String Quartet, which you wrote for the farewell tour of the Cleveland Quartet, and then later it served as the basis for the Pulitzer-winning Symphony No. 2. That one piece is your only quartet work of its size; you wrote other things, like Snapshot: Circa 1909, but they were small pieces. So here, you’re surrounding your big work with pieces by some of your students. What prompted that?
Well, the idea that my students, who I’m extremely proud of, have done so well in the world that I wanted to show what my students do. Mason Bates, last summer we went to Santa Fe, to his extremely successful opera on Steve Jobs. The guy is a titan: he’s at the Chicago Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony, the National Symphony. They all play his music, and he writes incredible music. And everybody knows of Nico Muhly. But there are so many others. In fact, on Wikipedia they have a listing of people – and it’s not even complete – who studied with me. I don’t know how they got it, because I didn’t have anything to do with Wikipedia’s entry. But, you know, Eric Whitacre studied with me…
Jefferson Friedman is one we spoke about on a past occasion. But I wasn’t aware of your connection to some of the others, like Gity Razaz, who’s on the program we’re discussing.
Oh, yeah. She’s very, very talented.
I suppose it shouldn’t seem like such a leap; if composers came to Juilliard, it seems that there’s a pretty good chance they came to work with you.
Well, there were other composers there of note. People also came to work with Chris Rouse. David Del Tredici was there for a while, and then left. We have Matthias Pintscher, also, for the people who want to write modernist music; when Babbitt left, we felt we had to fill that niche not with a composer who writes in a more accessible way, but to find somebody who writes in that very hard modernist way.
You’ve been strikingly generous to your students over the years. Mason Bates credits you with making the introductions that led to this proliferation of his music.
Well, if I think I have a talented student, and I have conductors I know, there’s no reason in the world for me not to have those students send a score to the conductor.
That’s going to be a concert of rich connections and personal resonances. And then we go on to the third program, which has the Violin Sonata, which is in some ways the ultimate personal resonance: you wrote it for your father, New York Philharmonic concertmaster John Corigliano. He went to great lengths to try to keep you away from this path… I know he set composers Paul Creston and Vittorio Giannini in your way, but that didn’t really work out. When did your father accept that you were going to be a composer, and by all evidence a successful one?
It wasn’t that. He was sort of blackmailed into doing it, because the piece was first played in Spoleto, then it was played by the concertmaster in London, then it was played by Roman Totenberg in Boston, and his friends started saying, “When are you going to play your son’s piece?” So he had to take it out of the closet, without saying a word to me, and start practicing it, and I didn’t know that until he’d worked it up and told me he was going to play it.
Peer pressure – outstanding. So when did he bow to consensus about your composing, in general?
I think after he’d played it a bit, and he realized that it was a solid piece. I have to tell you my Jascha Heifetz story about this violin sonata, which is over 50 years old now. When I wrote it, in ’62 or ’63 – because the Spoleto Festival was ’64, so this was ’62 or ’63, it took about a year-and-a-half to write, my usual slowness – I said to myself, why not send it to Jascha Heifetz? He’s the greatest violinist in the world. Let me just do it. So I sent it off to Jascha Heifetz with a note: “Dear Mr. Heifetz, I really would love to know what you think of this, sincerely, John Corigliano.” Addressed, sent, forget about it.
I was sitting in my little apartment on 73rd Street, and the phone rang. I was playing the piano. They said, “Beverly Hills calling for Mr. John Corigliano… it’s Jascha Heifetz.” I said, “I’m John Corigliano,” My mind is racing: my god, is he going to play it at the Hollywood Bowl? What will be on the other side of the recording? And then his voice comes on: “Mr. Corigliano, this is Jascha Heifetz.”
“Oh, yes, Mr. Heifetz, how are you?”
“You wrote to ask what I think of your piece.”
“Yes, Mr. Heifetz, what did you think of my piece?”
And then there’s a long pause, like Jack Benny did in Your Money or Your Life… and he says, “Not much.” I almost fell off the chair. He really did a Jack Benny: “Not much,” with that voice. And you could see that he was planning this phone call, just to be able to deliver that line. So we talked a little bit more; he said he’d tried to sight-read it with his accompanist, and it was too difficult to sight-read, and I said it wasn’t meant to be sight-read, I’m sorry. And he said, “Write something in four-quarter time and send it to me.” I said thank you, and that was the end of my story. But I just loved that moment; it was really Your Money or Your Life: [long pause] “I’m thinking it over.” You remember? That’s what it was.
The idea that Heifetz would take time out of his day to deliver a punch line…
Oh, yeah, if he could get you. He had that type of personality; if he could give you a zinger, he would do it.
There’s quite a lot of variety surrounding the sonata on the program. There’s the cello piece…
Phantasmagoria, based on The Ghosts of Versailles.
Yes, and then also Chiaroscuro is on that program.
Oh, good. They’re going to have to get two pianos into the place.
Chiaroscuro will come up again in a moment, when we talk about the tribute concert at Lehman College. But before that, chronologically, is the Juilliard concert on February 19, which brings your “Red Violin” Concerto and with it more distant echoes of the great violin literature your father played. Is that one as biographical to you, ultimately, in terms of your connection to your father, or is it filtered through having produced the music initially for film?
Well, the first movement occurred because I had to write a lot of music before the film was shot, so that they could synchronize Joshua Bell’s playing with the bowing. The bowings had to be accurate, completely, as was the instrument when it went through different ages, changing from black to rosewood to ebony for the fingerboard and all those things. The little boy who played the violin was actually a violinist from a school and could play the pieces, and did in Montreal. So I had to write a lot of stuff beforehand, and I organized it basically on a seven-chord chaconne that held the whole piece together. “Anna’s Theme,” which is the main theme of the piece, musically, was derived above that, and so were all the other themes. So I could encompass 300 years and five countries: all were glued together by that material.
Then Peter Gelb, without telling me – he was then the head of Sony then, and handled the soundtrack on this – scheduled a performance with the San Francisco Symphony and Joshua Bell in November, of a piece I would write… and then told me about it. And I said, what?! I had no idea that this would be suitable for my classical world. It was film stuff I was writing.
It turned out to be wonderful, what he did. But I said at first, I don’t know if I want this to be on a symphony program. Then I took all the materials and built the Chaconne, the 17-minute piece which is the first movement of the concerto, and was written as a separate piece. And in November, Josh Bell performed the Chaconne with Bob Spano and the San Francisco Symphony. The director, François Girard, came to San Francisco to hear it, and to give me a video of the first edit of the film. And then I would do all the underscoring, and we recorded all of that in Abbey Road Studios in London.
So I had this Chaconne, 17 minutes long. It’s like Ravel’s Tzigane or other pieces of that kind: they’re lovely to play, but they’re too short to be an evening. You have to play something with something with something. I said to myself, this is not complete, and furthermore I have a much wilder side to me I’d like to show. Why don’t I write a full concerto? I put that to Josh and to [publisher] Schirmer, and before you know it, three orchestras had commissioned it.
What I wanted to do in the second movement was to write a wild scherzo that’s absolutely ephemeral, like bees buzzing and flying around – it wasn’t centered on the romanticism of the first movement. And then, a slow movement, which used all elements from The Red Violin, but changed so much you didn’t recognize it. And finally, an accelerando finale, in which the soloist starts accelerating at a certain point, and the orchestra is playing straight beats, and the orchestra tries to catch up and play as fast as the soloist, and finally there’s a huge crash. And that ends, and then the opposite happens, and then they race together.
It turned out to be a 35-minute concerto; that’s on the long side, but it was because I really wanted that scherzo. And I felt, when I finished it, that now it’s my concerto, because all the elements that I do are in the piece. The first movement is more lyrical and romantic than I wanted, but I kind of like it. Composers today have to give themselves permission to write something lyrical.
I have trouble with my students, too, urging them just to write a melody. I’ll say, Stravinsky said it’s the hardest thing to write. He adopted many melodies, folk melodies, in his music, and he didn’t write a lot of melodies. Nor did Copland – he adopted folk songs. In Appalachian Spring, it was “Tis the gift to be simple” – things that are melodically beautiful in that come from the literature of folk music. It’s hard to write a melody, and to convince yourself that you can really write a melody, in this day and age, because of the kind of criticisms that happen. But we’ve got to get past that.
The next program after the Juilliard concert is happening at Lehman College in the Bronx, on Feb. 22. It’s another spread of your chamber pieces, including Chiaroscuro for two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart.
Stephen Gosling is on that program, and he’s playing Etude Fantasy for the first time. He’s an amazing pianist.
Right, it’s Stephen Gosling and Martin Kennedy at the pianos, and then Lara St. John…
Who’s a great friend of mine, and she’s going to play Stomp, which I wrote and she played for me before I sent it out. I was really concerned, because we have scordatura… we tune the G string down to E, and the E string to E-flat. So that means you have to put your finger down where ordinarily you’d be playing a certain pitch, but it’s another pitch.
It’s very tricky for the players, but it also gives me a wonderful low E. And country people do, that, too, so it gave me a chance to write kind of country-jazz. I called it Stomp because they also stomp and accompany themselves, and in this, the soloist who’s playing the unaccompanied violin piece starts stomping and tapping. Again, this was a competition piece for the Tchaikovsky competition, and all the violinists in the semi-finals had to play it. You could really tell the difference between people who understood what to do and people who didn’t.
What caught my eye about that event is that it’s raising funds for the John Corigliano Scholarship Fund. Could you talk a bit about that?
That got established when I got the Oscar, around that time. It’s given to Lehman music students who are outstanding, and it’s been in existence now… that’s 10 years, or more. I don’t make the decision; it’s made through the school. They have a group of people who make that decision. It’s just a wonderful way of rewarding some of the really talented students at Lehman. Everyone writes me a letter afterwards, thanking me for it, and I’m really happy for it. This concert is going to be where I teach – I’ve taught there 45 years, so I really know the school.
In an article I wrote about you 10 years ago, I said that thanks to a Lehman College advertising campaign in the subways, you probably are the best-known composition teacher in New York City.
[Laughs] Probably so. I kept wanting to get [that advertisement], and I missed getting one. They’re so big, I probably don’t have a place for it anymore… I don’t even have a place for a little honorary doctorate. This room is packed.
Life’s little challenges…
[Laughs] I remember when I went to Leonard Bernstein’s apartment that he had in the Osborne, many, many years ago, and he had a wall covered like this and his piano. And aside from his piano, the entire wall was covered in things like this, and I thought, oh my god, this is just too amazing. I couldn’t believe it. And now I have my own wall, and it’s wild.
John Corigliano celebrates his 80th birthday at National Sawdust on Feb. 16 at 7pm; nationalsawdust.org
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