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An Afternoon of Emotions

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
03/16/2014 -  & March 11 (San Francisco), 18 (Washington), 19 (Toronto), 20 (Montréal), 23 (Boston), 2014
John Corigliano: Symphony No. 1
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, opus 64

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel (Music Director/Conductor)

G. Dudamel, J. Corigliano (© Alfredo Octavio.com/Richard Howe)

Neither the two composers or the conductor of yesterday afternoon’s concert at Lincoln Center could ever be accused of hiding their innermost emotions. John Corigliano’s First Symphony is a work of “Rage and Remembrance’, a four-movement work written for an extravagantly large orchestra, with anger against the scourge of AIDS (in 1988 an incurable disease), and memories of those close friends he had lost. Tchaikovsky modestly described his Fifth Symphony as “complete resignation before Fate, or before the inscrutable predestination of Providence.”

As for Gustavo Dudamel, his innermost emotions towards his music are volatile, caring, searing, uninhibited, totally committed, totally immersed.

This, then, was a Trilateral Commission which–whether audiences approved of it or not–kept the most torpid visitor alert and awake.

Mr. Corigliano’s Symphony is a work I have resisted hearing for many years, perhaps because it is so manifestly a social document. Not a political musical screed, but an offering of anger that so many of his friends were dying of AIDS. All of our sympathies were for his noble four-movement gesture, but somehow–perhaps irrationally–I had felt that his nobility might have been verbal rather than musical.

Still, he is a most eloquent composer, and when finally hearing it for the first time yesterday afternoon, it proved to be an eloquent work. The fury he feels was in every measure of the first two movements. The first, was an almost continuous forte fortissimo in the orchestra, interrupted only by an offstage piano. This was the Godovsky arrangement of an Isaac Albèniz tango. (Reminiscent of the haunting waltz heard by Blanche du Bois in the Kazan film.) Even here, one needs a road marker. As in Streetcar, the music refers to an earlier time, when his pianist friend would play the tango as an encore.

The second movement was a tarantella, for the crazy quilt of those who died. But the tarantella itself is a dance of death, the crazy dances of those who supposedly were bit by the tarantula in South Italy.

Could the mania ever end? Yes, in the most beautiful third movement, a movement of tenderness (if hardly bliss), with two solo cellos, the L.A. Phil’s Robert deMaine and Ben Hong, playing with near improvisatory music. In reading the program notes later, I realized that Mr. Corigliano had written orchestral melodies to lines from an opera he had composed. But that was irrelevant. The solos were beautiful, this slow movement was not so much rage as remembrance, even appreciation.

The finale was a reprise of the other themes (including the beautiful piano by Joanne Pierce Martin.)

Needless to say, the pulsating earnestness of the work was conducted with almost defying passion by Mr. Dudamel. And needless to say, he is one of the most telegenic conductors around today. I doubt if he would appreciate it, but I doubt he is such a visceral conductor for the sake of show. He does manage to get the absolute best from his orchestra, not through mere coaxing or cueing, but through his own fervent interest.

Mr. Corigliano himself came out after the work with that selfsame enthusiasm, hugging waving, bowing, with joy. As it should have been. For this First Symphony was conducted with the same exuberance as it was composed. And while “exuberance” may not be the right word for what is basically a secular requiem, nothing is musically doleful here. It is not a piece I care to hear too many times. The signals, symbols and landmarks are too blatant. But Mr. Corigliano’s genius in pursuing his goal was never in doubt.

After the intermission, Mr. Dudamel attacked another work which tugs at the personal heartstrings. But even without the Tchaikovsky “back-story”, the piece sings for itself. Mr. Dudamel never overdid the emotions. This was a solid performance by a very solid orchestra, conducted without frills, without even a moment of dragging or over-restraint. If one was in the mood for Corigliano-style story telling, then Dudamel gave the Fifth Symphony a most felicitous ending. A triumphant march, a brassy finale, where the composer’s biographical prediction that–aside from his suicide for the shame of being homosexual–he would live happily ever after.

Harry Rolnick



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