Classic revival: Past comes back to help Pittsburgh Symphony's composer of the year

Maturing in an era when most composers looked away from the past, John Corigliano has taken a Janus-like approach to writing.

While the move away from tonality was not as extensive as is often suggested, in the '50s, '60s and '70s many prominent composers did radically dispense with tonality. Some of the evidence:

"Who Cares If You Listen?" was the title of a provocative essay by composer Milton Babbitt.

"Americans should have no problem doing without expressive emotional music like Beethoven," said composer and theorist John Cage.

Pittsburgh Symphony Season Opener
  • With: Yan Pascal Tortelier, conductor; Alexander Toradze, piano.

  • Program: Corigliano, 'Promenade Overture'; Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1; Berlioz, "Symphonie fantastique."
  • Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.
  • When: 8 p.m. Friday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
  • Tickets: Tickets: $17-$75;
  • More information: 412-392-4900.

"Any musician who has not felt ... the necessity of the dodecaphonic [12-tone] language is OF NO USE," screamed composer and conductor Pierre Boulez.

American composer Corigliano heard these cries but never relinquished his love for the music with which he grew up.

"The past is irrelevant, the past is unimportant -- that was drummed into my head. And my reaction was, no, the past [gives] you everything," says Corigliano (Co-ril-YAH-no), 69. "As long as you don't stay in the past, there is no problem with that. The idea of absorbing the past, going someplace we have never been, but [bearing] with us the wisdom of the past makes all the sense in the world."

While studying under Otto Luening at Columbia University in the late 1950s, Corigliano "was encouraged to write music that was basically music that I didn't love." But with a mother who was a piano teacher and a father who was concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, Corigliano had enough exposure to the "old music" to convince him it shouldn't be discarded. This sentiment was reinforced when he worked with Leonard Bernstein in the "Young People's Concerts." Corigliano came to share Bernstein's ardent desire to get more people interested in classical music.

Corigliano's commitment has paid off in the past two decades as the stylistic pendulum has swung back to favor composers of more accessible and even tonal music. The New York resident has gone from being out of fashion to one of America's most performed composers.

Corigliano's best-known works include his sensuous music for the Francois Girard film "The Red Violin" (1997), his touching tribute to AIDS victims, Symphony No. 1 (1991), and his heady Pulitzer Prize winner, Symphony No. 2 (2001).

This season, the Pittsburgh Symphony has named him composer of the year. It will perform five compositions by the composer, more than any prior composer in the position, including a commissioned premiere of a percussion concerto for Evelyn Glennie. Corigliano's "Promenade Overture" opens the season this weekend.

But don't confuse popularity with neo-Romanticism. Corigliano resists that association.

"Some of my music is tonal, and some isn't," he says. "Being comprehensible is important to me. That doesn't mean that I think everybody is going to get everything, but it does mean I try to make things clear."

Whether or not he taps into a melody as rapturous as "The Red Violin" in all its permutations (soundtrack, chaconne, suite and concerto), his music has the clean lines and strong sense of purpose that connects him to the music of Copland and Bernstein as much as Schumann or Beethoven.

He has been called a "true original," but Corigliano has a striking penchant for dialoguing with past music. His "Fantasia on an Ostinato" plays on the famous theme from the second movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, while "Fancy on a Bach Air" does the same to Bach's "Goldberg Variations." But Corigliano's "Mannheim Rocket" takes the prize. It's a "flight" through the history of classical music, with memorable quotes throughout the journey.

The 'Hello' Overture

The PSO season begins with a particularly witty example of his re-imagining of the past: the "Promenade Overture." It's a "reversal" of one of music history's most curious pieces, Haydn's Symphony No. 45, "Farewell." Haydn used this work, written in 1772, to delicately show his patron, prince Nicholas Esterhazy, that the court musicians wanted to leave the summer estate and return to Vienna. At the end of the symphony, Haydn had the musicians leave the stage, one by one, leaving only two violinists. Corigliano's work is an about-face, with the musicians parading on stage as they play.

"It is a fun piece," says Corigliano. "[It] starts out with four percussionists on stage with no conductor and no orchestra." The horns and trumpets play an opening fanfare backstage that just happens to be the last measures of the "Farewell" Symphony backward. Then, section by section, the orchestra walks on stage while playing, even the cellos. There is a twist at the end, but we won't play spoiler here.

Corigliano wrote the piece for John Williams and the Boston Pops, and it premiered in 1981. "It is really not hard, but it becomes hard because most orchestra musicians are not used to memorizing even eight bars of music," he says.

It's creative projects like this that show that just because Corigliano often uses traditional means, it doesn't mean he is conservative about his work.

"I always felt that my pieces are much more experimental even though they can be tonal," he says. "It's just that the experiments are things you can hear! In every piece I try to do something I haven't done before, and so I always think of myself as quite adventurous."

Indeed, this season at Heinz Hall, Corigliano's multifaceted music will be an adventure for audiences to look forward -- and backward -- to.

Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at or 412-263-1750. He blogs at . First Published September 26, 2007 4:00 AM


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?