Symphoria 2016-17 Season: Booklet II: Masterworks V
February 18, 2017
“The music totally mesmerized me—it was so beautiful.” That’s how tonight’s soloist Elina Vähälä describes her first reaction on watching François Girard’s film The Red Violin, with its Oscar-winning score by John Corigliano (born 1938). She wasn’t the only one mesmerized. Corigliano himself, it seems, has been obsessed with this music, returning to it again and again to create a number of subsequent works for violin solo, piano, piano and violin, and violin and orchestra. You will probably be mesmerized, too: much of this music (especially the theme associated with the character Anna in the film) has the kind of immediate, heart-stopping beauty of, say, the love theme from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet.
Among the most important of these Red Violin works is the Chaconne Corigliano wrote for Violin and Orchestra in 1997. What’s a chaconne? The term, often used interchangeably with the term passacaglia, refers to a familiar device borrowed from the baroque period in which a repeated pattern (in this case, a series of chords) serves as the underpinning for a work (the Pachelbel Canon is a familiar example). Here, the “Anna” theme is (to use the composer’s word) “juxtaposed” on top of it. In 2003, Corigliano expanded the Chaconne, adding three more movements to make a four-movement Violin Concerto—and that, one of the most massive violin concertos in the repertoire, is the work that will be presented tonight.
When she learned about the composition of the concerto, Elina pounced on the opportunity to add it to her repertoire. Joshua Bell had exclusive rights to the work for three years, but Elina was ready—and when 2006 finally arrived, she already had a number of concert performances lined up. Since then, it has become something of a signature piece for her—she’s performed it dozens of times and has recorded it as well.
What so attracts her? In part, it’s the variety of the score: although the thematic material from the Chaconne returns (and you’ll find both the Chaconne chords and the Anna theme quickly recognizable), “each movement has such a different character.” Some of it may be shocking (the scherzo, she says, sounds like a swarm of insects)—some of it is thrilling in an old-fashioned virtuoso sense (“The excitement of the finale is contagious.”) But throughout, “this piece has a deep emotional content all the time which the listener can really identify with. That’s what makes me want to play this piece over and over again. I wouldn’t do it if there wasn’t something that moved your soul. I need that in the music.” For anyone who fears that lack of familiarity with the film may temper the effect of the music, Elina points out that she no longer thinks of the film when she’s performing the concerto: “It’s not program music, especially in this form. It’s absolute music.” So don’t worry: just “sit back and let go.”
Is the Corigliano the great American Violin Concerto? The only competition, to my mind, is the one by Samuel Barber (1910-1981), performed at a Casual concert last year and returning, by popular demand, on our final Masterworks concert this year. It’s therefore appropriate to couple the Corigliano with Barber’s one-movement Symphony No. 1 (1936, revised 1942), a work in the running for the Great American Symphony. In fact, the combination is doubly, perhaps triply, appropriate. Like Corigliano, Barber has an exceptional lyrical sense—and the symphony’s Big Tune, which appears in several guises throughout, is just as heart-wrenching as the Anna theme in Corigliano’s concerto. There’s a formal connection, too. While the symphony is nominally in a single movement, it really divides (without breaks) into the traditional four movements. And just as Corigliano begins with a chaconne, so Barber ends with a passacaglia—based on a repeated theme, rather than a repeated series of chords. There’s another connection between the works as well—although it’s slightly more obscure. Corigliano’s father was a violinist, for many years the concert-master of the New York Philharmonic—and in his concerto, the composer tried to write music that he thought his father would enjoy. His father was in the violin section when the Philharmonic first performed the Barber.
So why isn’t Barber’s First better known? Conductor Larry Loh believes the reason is superficial: it is “an “underappreciated work” perhaps because of its “in-between length.” But whatever the reasons, it’s surely not because the music itself is lacking: “It has all the things you love about Barber, and more of the drama.” Absolutely: if you know Barber primarily from the Adagio for Strings and the Violin Concerto, you’ll find the same exquisite melodic skill here—but you may be surprised by the symphony’s sheer grandeur.
These two emotionally intense works are bracketed by two approachable works that are somewhat lighter in spirit. We open with the Redline Tango (2003) by John Mackey (born 1973). According to the composer, the title has a double meaning. On the one hand, it refers to the New York subway line that connects the composer’s apartment and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, home of the Brooklyn Philharmonic which commissioned and premiered the work. More obviously, it refers to “‘redlining an engine,’ or pushing it to the limit”—a reference that will be immediately clear when you hear the driving outer sections of the piece. Separating these two examples of redlining is a more relaxed tango, “rather light but demented, and even a bit sleazy,” that’s built out of the same musical material.
If Mackey gives us an Argentinian vernacular refracted through American eyes, our closing work, An American in Paris, composed in 1928 by George Gershwin (1898-1937), gives us a glimpse of American jazz as it was imagined by the French in the 1920s—or, more dizzyingly, an American’s interpretation of the French conception of American jazz. It is, of course, an extremely familiar work—but its very ubiquity, especially as background music, may well have dulled our sensitivity to its genius. If you take tonight’s concert as a welcome chance to listen to it closely, without distraction, you may be surprised by its richness—as well as by its depth. It is, in Larry’s words, a “depiction of a busy metropolitan downtown that’s not American”—but as he also points out, it’s laced with a variety of emotions, including homesickness. Since its first performance, some people who insist on a clear dividing line between “classical” and “popular” music have been uncomfortable with its genre straddling. But by the end of tonight’s concert, I think you’ll agree that it holds its own on a concert featuring the very best music in the American orchestral repertoire.
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org