April 21 2010 12:00 AM

A cast of hundreds brings a modern master’s work to life at Michigan State University



It was a scene from the court of Catherine the Great: 100 musicians playing for one person.

But they weren’t playing “Long Live the Tsar.” Monday afternoon at the Wharton Center’s Great Hall, violin bows slithered up and down, mallets skittered across skins and fingers raced up and down flutes and clarinets to evoke a horde of skittering rats.

On stage, flutist Richard Sherman tried to fight them off, but his nimble arabesques were smothered. The MSU Symphony was all around him, squirming at full tilt.

The one-man audience looked up from his little lamp-lit table, tucked into the empty rows. While the rat battle raged, he sat down, nervously stood up, sat back down. He pulled out his cell phone.

“I’m in a rehearsal right now,” he whispered. “They’re doing the ‘Pied Piper Fantasy.’ I’ll call you later.” He slapped the phone shut without taking his eyes off the stage.

When the music stopped, he stood up again.

“It sounds like a big cloud now,” John Corigliano said. “A big, dark cloud. It’s very exciting.”

Clashing musical dramas that pit melody against chaos have earned John Corigliano a Pulitzer Prize, an Oscar and a commission from the Metropolitan Opera. More important, they’ve made him one of the few living composers whose music has crept into the rotation with Brahms and Tchaikovsky, touching a nerve with wider audiences without losing cred from the cognoscenti.

All this week, Corigliano will teach and work with Michigan State University students. For the students, it’s like playing Beethoven for Beethoven. For the composer, it’s a way to be heard, at full strength and properly rehearsed, without jaded professionals or union restrictions.

The week will end Saturday with a concert of Corigliano’s major works involving over 330 musicians — an extravaganza that would cost a fortune to put together outside a university.


Corigliano is as famous and honored as a classical composer gets these days, but most people still don’t know who he is.

He’s best known for his Oscar-winning score for the 1998 film “The Red Violin,” part of which will be played at Saturday’s concert.

Corigliano might use any kind of music, from Mozart to atonal music to Looney Tunes, to get his ideas across. His First Symphony, written in 1991, is a vast scroll of grief and anguish dedicated to friends who died of AIDS. At the symphony’s heartbreaking core is a set of happy dance melodies — his dead friends’ favorite tunes — embedded in a jagged symphonic glacier out of Gustav Mahler. His Second Symphony, written in 2001, won the Pulitzer for music.

Film work and teaching, along with residencies like this week’s stay at MSU, have plugged him into the zeitgeist more than the ivory-tower composers of the late 20th century.

“He helped redefine what it means to be a composer,” MSU composition professor Mark Sullivan said.

Corigliano’s mix of beauty, playfulness, savagery and drama clicks with post-modern audiences, but he is rarely accused of pandering.

“It’s interesting that he doesn’t seem particularly taken with his own successes,” Sullivan said. “He doesn’t just cave in to commercial formula.”

But sooner or later, every composer faces the same problem: How to compete with the hydra-headed distractions of pop culture?

In 2002, Corigliano gave his answer.

Two weeks ago, MSU’s 100plus-strong Wind Symphony was in its second month of rehearsal for the ultimate Corigliano experience: a hyperactive, surround-sound piece called “Circus Maximus,” the closer of Saturday night’s concert.

The music explicitly links reality-TV and other modern diversions with the “reality programming” of ancient Rome’s gladiatorial arena.

“It’s both a celebration and a warning,” Corigliano. “It has a lot of layers to it.”

The third movement, “Channel Surfing,” jumps from war reports and funeral dirges to cartoon chases and dance shows in dizzying succession.

“We watch a moment of a bomb blowing up 10 children and then we go to a toothpaste commercial, then it’s a little puppy who’s caught in a well,” Corigliano said. “We take it all as entertainment, news broadcasts and everything.”

Corigliano lost a round with the “Circus Maximus” mentality last year, when he wrote a score for Mel Gibson’s “Edge of Darkness,” only to see it discarded.

Until now, Corigliano’s film work has been selective but well-received. His lush, romantic music for “The Red Violin” won an Oscar in 1998; his scores for “Revolution” in 1985 and “Altered States” in 1980 (which earned him an Academy Award nomination) still have a following.

Originally a psychological thriller, “Edge of Darkness” was recut and reworked.

“They wanted to make it into an action film,” Corigliano said, dryly. “They took out the music and put in more of a beat, a pop sound, and more gunfights and punches.”

“It happens all the time in Hollywood, but it’s the first time it ever happened to me, and I can’t say I enjoyed the process.”

Gonzo music

In “Circus Maximus,” also known as Symphony No. 3, Corigliano takes the short-attention-span society to task while wowing it with effects no composer has tried before.

At a rehearsal last week, MSU’s Wind Symphony was crammed into the east end of Demonstration Hall, the only building on campus big enough to accommodate a rehearsal.

All afternoon, a backfield of five percussionists scrambled among six marimbas and xylophones, two gongs, a semi-circle of tympani, bass drums, snare drums, flexotones, wood blocks, tubular bells, a police whistle, crotales, a bright orange thing you hit with a stick and a gray pipe that looked like a periscope from a U-Boat.

The rest of the hall was laid out like Lee’s army at Gettysburg. A saxophone quartet, 13 “surround trumpets,” auxiliary drummers and horns and a contingent from the marching band (which will parody itself) took their places, hundreds of feet from each other and the director.

Six years ago, Wind Symphony director Kevin Sedatole was blown away by the premiere of “Circus Maximus” at Carnegie Hall and met Corigliano.

“I knew the piece was going to have a monumental impact,” Sedatole said.

And it did, at least in the world of wind bands. In the wake of “Circus Maximus,” two other Pulitzer-winning composers, William Bolcom and Aaron Kernis, wrote major pieces for winds. The New York Philharmonic will premiere Kernis’ concerto for trumpet and wind orchestra next year.

One of Sedatole’s top priorities upon arriving at MSU four years ago was to bring Corigliano and “Circus Maximus” to Spartan country.

“The whole point is to overstimulate the audience, just as the original Circus Maximus did,” Sedatole said.

“In a different way, of course,” he added quickly.

It sounds like a job for an orchestra, but Corigliano said he wrote it for wind band because “they really learn music.”

“Orchestras might rehearse a day or two before the performance,” Corigliano said. “They’re basically sight-reading.”

By contrast, Sedatole has been drilling his musicians in the mad intricacy of “Circus Maximus” for weeks.

on the clock in a college rehearsal,” Sedatole said. “Besides, college
musicians bring a different kind of spirit than professional musicians.
‘Overstimulated’ is where they live.”

2008, the Detroit Symphony’s new maestro Leonard Slatkin conducted
“Circus Maximus,” but Sedatole said the performance fell short. “They
tried to do it in two rehearsals,” Sedatole said.

Now he’s got his forces prepped and can’t wait to rehearse with Corigliano.

“When you have the composer there, everything is heightened,” Sedatole said. “There’s more tension. Everyone plays better.”

At last week’s rehearsal, Sedatole and his legions took the technical challenges of “Circus Maximus” in stride.

before the music started, one of the “surround drummers” Brendan Betyn
stood at his distant post. Next to his kit was a small table with four
mallets, two drumsticks, a cello bow and a bag of red Gonzos, removed
from the cellophane for silent snacking.

“Me and the guy on the end will be 150 feet apart, having to play together,” Betyn said. “That’s going to be interesting.”

Doctoral clarinet student Julie Neal was tucked in a corner, reading a book, even further from the main body.

“I’ll be in the back of the Wharton balcony,” she said. “I’m here mostly for color effects and extra noise.”

music calls for Neal to rest 20 minutes “and come in from the middle of
nowhere,” making allowances for the time it takes for sound to travel.

Neal’s cue is a seagull squawk from bassist Robert Johnson, crammed into the opposite corner of the hall with a saxophone quartet.

But when Johnson squealed, the band didn’t hear him.

“The seagull needs to eat some Wheaties,” Sedatole yelled across the hall.

enhance the surreal music, cheerleaders were jumping outside one window
of Demonstration Hall and ROTC soldiers marched in uniform outside the
other. The circus inside the room merged seamlessly with the big one

The wind players were turning purple, but still weren’t giving Sedatole the raw fury he wanted.

“You’re being too musical,” he told them. Later, he asked the clarinets to bay as if the moon were full.

“I find myself here, saying things I never thought I would say,” he muttered.

Gods and woofers

channel-surfing, when the new medium of TV was expected to bring high
culture to the average person, Corigliano helped Leonard Bernstein
script and shoot his “Young People’s Concerts.”

worked 13 years with Bernstein, the ebullient composer-maestro who has
never been surpassed as a promoter and explainer of music.

experience still energizes Corigliano’s classes. “He treated young
people like adults,” Corigliano said. “He didn’t talk down to them but
he gave them tremendous amounts of information.”

Brooklyn in the 1950s was the perfect place for the future wizard of “Circus Maximus” to grow up. (He was born there in 1938.)

all started when the LP record came in in the ’50s,” Corigliano said.
“I got a hi-fi set with a big Klipsch cabinet with a 15-inch woofer.”

Mid-century symphonic giants like Bernstein, Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland and Dmitri Shostakovich were working at full heat. Jazz was going in all directions, from Duke Ellington to Thelonious Monk to John Coltrane.

Even film music was at a peak of grandeur and creativity.
Movie masters like Jerry Goldsmith, Alex North and Miklos Rozsa — all
of whom have found their way into Corigliano’s sound — were filling
huge theaters with six-track symphonic scores.

At first, Corigliano listened to LPs for the “sheer sound.”

was playing Aaron Copland’s ‘Billy the Kid,’ with the gun going off,
and the bass drum, and the snare drums are going wildly, and it’s
sonically phenomenal,” he said.

he started picking out Copland’s chords, “so simple and yet so
unusual,” on the piano. As a student at Midwood High, he borrowed
scores from Bernstein, Stravinsky, Copland and others.

20th-century giants still loom in Corigliano’s eclectic, post-modern
soundscape. Copland’s bass and snare figure prominently in “Circus
Maximus,” which ends with a shotgun blast that tops “Billy the Kid.”
(That’s not a spoiler; there’s a warning in the program.) Corigliano’s
searing First

Symphony reaches the pathos and scope of Shostakovich, also at his peak
in the 1950s. Studying the score of “Circus Maximus,” Mark Sullivan
finds echoes of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.”

calls it “an oscillation between serenity and barbaric thrashing.
There’s no middle ground — it’s one extreme or the other.”

obsession with stereo effects (and beyond, in the case of “Circus
Maximus”) continues the old romance between a boy and his Klipsch

But the
bravura new world of Bernstein ebbed in the second half of the 20th
century, when mass entertainment grabbed the public ear and “serious”
composers drifted onto an academic ice floe of 12-tone, atonal, chance,
electronic and other avant-garde styles.

Corigliano said the rift really started in the 19th century, when Richard Wagner “declared himself a god.”

the 20th century, certain composers thought of themselves as gods, and
therefore the music they wrote was incomprehensible,” Corigliano said.
“They took pleasure in it, and elevated incomprehensibility to a higher
moral status.”

gravitates more toward the avant-garde, but praised Corigliano for
finding ways to deal with music’s tonal heritage, its atonal heritage,
and the isolation of contemporary art.

“It’s a situation we’re all in,” Sullivan said. “He hasn’t ducked the issue. He hasn’t come up with a bunch of non-committal schlock.”

Whether or not you agree with Corigliano on
the merits of the avantgarde, it’s a fact that symphony programs became
fatally stuck on the old masters after 1960 and a generation of music
lovers cut “modern music” out of their lives.

“That’s still something we’re fighting to win back,” Corigliano said.


Looking back at “Circus Maximus” and his other work, Corigliano feels he has done about all he can with the medium.

“I don’t want to write for the symphony orchestra anymore,” Corigliano declared.

said that’s to Corigliano’s credit. “A lot of people who’ve had his
kind of success just keep cranking them out, rehash after rehash after
rehash,” Sullivan said.

is also a problem for Corigliano. He’d like to do more collaborative
works, like a musical theater piece or another opera, “wildly”
different from his 1991 Met commission, “The Ghosts of Versailles.”

want to deal with singers, writers, plot, as part of a team. So it’s
not merely — you go into your room and come out a year later with your

At 71,
Corigliano could write his own ticket as a professor at any school in
the country, or just retire from teaching. But he still leads
composition classes at Brooklyn’s Lehman College, bringing his boom-box
to share new sounds with his students.

At MSU, he’ll listen to composition student pieces in between rehearsals for Saturday’s concert.

is important to me,” Corigliano said. “You’ve always got to take new
students and explain basic truths to them. You can’t get caught up in
your own rhetoric.”

His suggestions to the MSU orchestra were more evocative than technical.

“Play as if you’re in a trance,” he told a violinist. “This is the moment the piper’s magic is revealed.”

For the misty beginning of the “Pied Piper Fantasy,” his advice went as follows: “Give everything you’ve got to the sunrise.”

When a technical matter did come up, it all came back again to Corigliano’s boyhood love for those 15-inch woofers.

the rehearsal wound down, Corigliano asked MSU Symphony maestro Leon
Gregorian for a second set of tom-toms (heavy-sounding drums used most
famously by Phil Collins) for the other side of the stage.

stage was rather full, with risers for 100 singers crammed behind the
orchestra, but after some discussion and scurrying, it was decided the
extra drums could be wedged in.

“It’s great fun if you have it going from both sides,” Corigliano said, gratefully.

An Evening with John Corigliano

Wind Symphony, Symphony Orchestra, University Chorale, State Singers

p.m. Saturday, April 24

Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall



For full Corigliano residency schedule:

www.music.msu.edu/events/ Coriglianoresidency.php

Subscribe to Our Newsletter