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Mr. Corigliano’s Paean Angelicus

New York
Avery Fischer Hall, Lincoln Center
09/30/2011 -  & October 1, 4, 2011
Samuel Barber: Essay No. 1 for orchestra, Opus 12
John Corigliano: One Sweet Morning, for mezzo-soprano and orchestra (World Premiere)
Antonín Dvorák: Symphony Nr. 7 in D minor, Opus 70

Stephanie Blythe (Mezzo-soprano)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Alan Gilbert (Music Director and Conductor)

J. Corigliano (© Enid Block)

No secular event since the Napoleonic Wars has inspired so much serious music as the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Each offer individual pictures of emotion, understanding, and torment. None show the directed anger and vengeance oft shouted by popular media.

John Corigliano’s essay in “Nine-eleven thought” is, in its sheer aural content, on its way to transcend a commemorative work, and should in one form or another, be on the road to greatness. For Mr. Corigliano, like the composer who preceded him in this well-constructed program, Samuel Barber, wears his art on his sleeve. He has never feared pure emotional pathos, his language is that of pure inspiration, and his creations bear the mark of a great composer.

In One Sweet Morning, named after the fourth poem set for mezzo and orchestra and New York Philharmonic co-commissioned with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, Mr. Corigliano has selected four poets and four emotional utterances which breathe the music he needed. The two inner sections both show war from its action and reaction. Homer’s Iliad, yes, gives the tortured death of Patroclus, but continues with what Home knows best: the personal listing of those who died with him.

Li Po offers in a few lines on war, and again the personal effects on “My husband–my sons–out where the war drums throb and throb.”

The outer sessions are those of peace...kind of. The poem by Polish essayist Czeslav Milosz describes the prosaic foretaste of the end of the world. E.Y. Harburg gives the feeling of hope, the prosaic beauty of one sweet morning

Mr. Corigliano’s setting resonated, in a very special way. His setting of the Milosz could have been for strings and voice. A simple cellular theme in the strings, repeated, varied, tonal, against the mezzo-line listing the pleasures of “women walking through the fields”...the disappointments of “those who expected thunder and lightning.”

The vocal line strays away from consonance, almost like a tone row, but is always anchored by the strings, as well as a harmonica sounding like seagulls. The simplicity of subject and music are intertwined skein-like, embracing dark and light.

The Homer poem begins with all the usual war noises, of drums and trumpets. But as she sings the names from the “blurs of kills”, the strings quiet down to a series of repeated chords, a funeral chant for the departed.

Li Po’s poem calls for more muted emotions, low and flowing. Finally, Harburg’s poem, a variation on the hope in his greatest poem, “Over the Rainbow”, that from the gloom “spring will bloom, one sweet morning.”

The strophic song is simple. But in each repeat of the lines of “one sweet morning”, we hear a melismatic phrase, a deep-felt retention of the emotion.

The result of this 30-minute work is the control of the great poets. Nothing saccharine or bathetic, four moods of sanctity, and an orchestral coloring which never ever draws attention to itself.

S. Blythe (© Courtesy of the artist)

Stephanie Blythe has the voice which is mostly tender, always dramatically right, even during the rare loud declaration or the semi-recitatives. And Alan Gilbert has done credit to Mr. Corigliano’s most memorable work.

Some last night compared it in form to Mahler’s Song of the Earth, others to the poetry of Britten’s War Requiem.. That was inevitable. The truth is, that John Corigliano has created an original work which I hope will be repeated every September, not as paean but as homage.

Samuel Barber’s Essay was like a prelude to the Corigliano. Yes, Mr. Barber used the title of the music to develop different moods, including a marvelous section for the Phil’s brass. But mainly, this was a study in forlorn thoughts at start and finish.

No possible segue could link the first half to the quiet joy of Dvorák’s Seventh Symphony, so Mr. Gilbert didn’t even try, and he led a pleasant, lyrical, performance, with the Phil string playing that luscious tone which even Dvoøák loved some 115 years ago.

The evening, though, belonged to Mr. Corigliano, whose talents, experience, heart and inspiration were fused into a work of major significance.

Harry Rolnick



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