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ClassicsOnline Home » CORIGLIANO, J.: Conjurer / Vocalise (Glennie, Plitmann, Albany Symphony, Miller)
Leading American composer John Corigliano had reservations about writing a percussion concerto, but the challenge fascinated him. The result is Conjurer, a concerto for percussion like no other, in which ‘wood, metal and skin’ are utilised in such a way that the soloist, Dame Evelyn Glennie—the world’s greatest percussion virtuoso—‘conjures’ the musical material from these three choirs, and the orchestra then shares and develops the themes. Vocalise employs electronics in a way that serves to heighten the expressive beauty of the writing, gradually leading the listener from a purely acoustic experience to one that becomes suffused by amplification and electronics.
This new recording brings together two unusual additions to John Corigliano's repertoire. "Conjurer" is a percussion concerto composed for Evelyn Glennie (who performs on this release). The work has six sections: three cadenzas, and three movements, labeled Wood, Metal, and Skin. Each movement uses percussion instruments only belonging to its own group.
Corigliano blends tonal and non-tonal percussion instruments with alacrity. Each cadenza leads into a movement where the string orchestra further develops the themes, along with the soloist. It's an effective work when done well -- and in this recording, it's done very well.
"Vocalise" is the older of the two works, being completed in 1999. This challenging work for soprano, electronics and orchestra plays against audience expectations. When the piece begins, it sounds like a typical contemporary work. The melody seems to skip all over the place, the electronics add a strangeness and artificiality to the sound, and the orchestra bloops and bleeps away with tone clusters and glissandi.
But very soon things start to change. Like a flower blossoming, the work opens up. The melody becomes more tonal, the electronics more subtle, and the ensemble more expansive. It ends quietly, having made the journey through the full potential of the human voice.
The Albany symphony performs admirably in both works. Soprano Hila Plitmann has a pure sustained tone that gives her performance an ethereal quality -- one in keeping with the intent of "Vocalise."
John Corigliano (b 1938)
Conjurer • Vocalise
The American John Corigliano continues to add to one of the richest, most unusual, and most widely celebrated bodies of work any composer has created over the last forty years. Corigliano’s numerous scores, including three symphonies and eight concertos among over one hundred chamber, vocal, choral, and orchestral works, have been performed and recorded by many of the most prominent orchestras, soloists, and chamber musicians in the world. Recent scores include One Sweet Morning (2011) written for the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and performed by mezzosoprano Stephanie Blythe with Alan Gilbert conducting the New York Philharmonic, Conjurer (2008), for percussion and string orchestra, commissioned for and introduced by Dame Evelyn Glennie, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, The Red Violin (2005), developed from the themes of the score to François Girard’s film of the same name, which won Corigliano an Oscar in 1999, Mr Tambourine Man, Seven Poems of Bob Dylan (2000) for orchestra and amplified soprano, the Naxos recording of which (8.559331) won the GRAMMY® for Best Contemporary Composition in 2008, Symphony No 3, Circus Maximus (2004), scored simultaneously for wind orchestra and a multitude of wind ensembles (Naxos CD 8.559601 / Blu-ray Audio NBD0008); and Symphony No 2 (2001: Pulitzer Prize in Music.) Other important scores include String Quartet (1995: GRAMMY® Award, Best Contemporary Composition), Symphony No 1 (1991: Grawemeyer and GRAMMY® Awards), the opera The Ghosts of Versailles (Metropolitan Opera commission, 1991, International Classical Music Award 1992), and the Clarinet Concerto (1977.) One of the few living composers to have a string quartet named for him, Corigliano serves on the composition faculty at The Juilliard School of Music and holds the position of Distinguished Professor of Music at Lehman College, City University of New York, which has established a scholarship in his name. For the past fourteen years he and his partner, the composer-librettist Mark Adamo, have divided their time between Manhattan and Kent Cliffs, New York. More information is available at www.johncorigliano.com.
When asked to compose a percussion concerto, my only reaction was horror. All I could see were problems. While I love using a percussion battery in my orchestral writing, the very thing that makes it the perfect accent to other orchestral sonorities makes it unsatisfactory when it takes the spotlight in a concerto. For starters, a percussionist plays dozens of instruments. Again, this is wonderful if his rôle is to color an orchestral texture: but if he (or she) is the main focus, it is terrible. The aural identity of the player is lost amid the myriad bangs, crashes, and splashes of the percussion arsenal. Only the visual element of one person playing all these instruments ties them together. In addition, most of the instruments have no pitch at all (or very little), and don’t sustain a sound (like a violin or trumpet). As a result, most percussion concerti I have heard sound like orchestral pieces with an extra-large percussion section. The melodic interest always rests with the orchestra, while the percussion plays accompanying figures around it.
Of course, one could limit oneself to writing for keyboard percussion: marimba or vibraphone, for example. Many concertos have been written like this, and the combination of using an instrument with definite pitches and restricting oneself to one instrument does focus the work on a single soloist.
I thought of all of this as I sat down to discuss my writing a percussion concerto. Obviously I had more than mixed views about this project, but something about the challenge fascinated me, too. Many of my works begin this way. I pose a problem and write a piece as the solution. In this case, the problem is the following: How do I write a concerto for a solo percussionist playing many different instruments in which the soloist is always clearly the soloist (even with your eyes closed), and how do I write a concerto in which there are real melodies—and those melodies are introduced by the percussionist, not the orchestra?
I. WOOD The pitched wood instruments are the xylophone and marimba. To supplement this, I constructed a “keyboard” of unpitched wooden instruments (wood block, claves, log drum, etc) ranging from high to low and placed it in front of the marimba. The soloist could play pitched notes on the marimba and then strike unpitched notes on the wooden keyboard.
The initial cadenza starts with unpitched notes, but gradually pitched notes enter and various motives are revealed as well as ideas based upon the interval of a fifth. This interval will run through the entire concerto as a unifying force. After a climactic run, the orchestra enters, developing the 5th interval into a rather puckish theme. Soloist and orchestra develop the material and build to a climactic xylophone solo, and finally return to the opening theme.
II. METAL The cadenza is for chimes (tubular bells) accompanied by tam-tams and suspended cymbals. It is loud and clangorous, with the motivic fifths clashing together. The movement itself, however, is soft and long lined. The melody that will end the movement is introduced in the low register of the vibraphone, and the movement develops to a dynamic climax where the chimes return, and then subsides to a soft texture in the lower strings as the struck/bowed vibraphone plays its melody.
III. SKIN The skin cadenza features a “talking drum” accompanied by a kick drum. The talking drum is played with the hands, and can change pitch as its sides are squeezed. Strings connect the top and bottom skins, and squeezing stretches them tighter—and raises the pitch. It provides a lively conversation with a kick drum: a very dry small bass drum played with a foot pedal and almost exclusively used as part of a jazz drum set. This cadenza starts slowly, but builds to a loud and rhythmic climax.
The movement then begins with the soloist and orchestra playing a savage rhythmic figure that accelerates to a blinding speed. A central section brings back the 5ths against a pedal timpanum that is played with the hands in a “talking drum” style. The accelerando returns, and leads to a wild and improvised cadenza using all the drums and a virtuoso finish.
Once it was complete, it occurred to me that the piece’s cadenza-into-movement form characterizes the soloist as a kind of sorcerer. The effect in performance is that the soloist doesn’t so much as introduce material as conjure it, as if by magic, from the three disparate choirs: materials which the orchestra then shares and develops; hence, the title Conjurer.
Vocalise was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic as part of an evening entitled Messages for the Millennium, presented in 1999 by Music Director Kurt Masur. Maestro Masur chose five composers from five countries and asked them what their message to the Philharmonic audience was on the eve of the new millennium. This was an interesting question to ask concert composers since we have been writing for an ensemble that grew in size and variety from the Baroque period to the beginnings of the twentieth century, but then froze around 1900. The size of the modern symphony is exactly the same as it was at the beginning of the twentieth century, and here we are entering the twenty-first.
For me, the answer to Kurt Masur’s question was clear. It was time for the acoustic world of classical music to come to terms with the worlds of amplification and electronic manipulation that surrounded it in the popular and film world.
The mention of amplification frightens many concertgoers, who imagine shrieks and howls tearing them from their seats. I wanted to write a piece using electronics that was beautiful to hear. Marshall McLuhan’s famous saying is that “the medium is the message.” I wanted to change that concept, and show that “the medium is the messenger.” The composer sends his message—be it Bach or Boulez—through the performers to the audience. And if amplification and electronics are part of the language of the rest of the musical world, why shouldn’t they be a part of concert music too?
The shape of Vocalise was determined by my desire to write a piece that gradually led the audience from the natural lyrical sound of the human voice, through the acoustic natural sound of voice and orchestra. At a point where the growing intensity of the music and the low lyric voice would provide problems of projection, the singer moves to a microphone and is amplified through the hall (speakers are placed around the hall.) The piece can then grow even more in intensity, and at a peak, the singer sings a passage that is “caught” by the electronics and repeated again and again (a “loop”). Solo instruments in the orchestra add to this looping effect by playing into microphones next to them, and the peak of the work combines a full orchestral palette with both the treated and amplified voice and treated solo instruments, which then careen downwards followed by echos from the electronics.
The piece becomes quieter and quieter, and ends up with the soprano humming the same melody she hummed acoustically on the stage at the opening of the work, but this time into a microphone which transforms the humming into an overlapping series of echoes that gently surround the audience.
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CORIGLIANO, J.: Conjurer / Vocalise (Glennie, Plit...