Corigliano's Symphony No. 1 bursts with fire

April 22, 1994|By Stephen Wigler DTC | Stephen Wigler DTC,Music Critic

John Corigliano's Symphony No. 1 is a work that has always seemed to me to shriek too loudly. Until the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and its music director, David Zinman, performed it last night in Meyerhoff Hall, however, I knew the work only from the recording the Chicago Symphony and Daniel Barenboim made during the world premiere performances of the piece four years ago.

Corigliano is one of my favorite composers, a musician whose pieces are beautifully crafted and full of feeling.

The Symphony No. 1 has no program, but it was inspired by the "AIDS Quilt" and, like that artifact, seeks to memorialize those the composer has lost to that plague. But this work -- at least in its first three sections -- exploded with sound and fury that did not always appear to be justified by the music's materials.

The performance of Zinman and the BSO, while it did not fully convince me that I have underprized it, persuaded me that the Barenboim-Chicago recording is not as persuasive an advocate as the symphony deserves. There is a peculiarly "American" quality to the first movement that Zinman captured and that Barenboim missed; the BSO's music director also made more intelligible the alterations between madcap gaiety and the ominous tread of the second-movement scherzo and the way that gaiety accelerates into madness; and Zinman and his orchestra played the elegiac third movement and epilogue with more conviction.

It was a performance that made clear that this was an important work by one of our most important composers and that it needs it a better recorded performance than the one that can currently be heard.

The first half of the concert, which featured Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2, struck an unintended grim chord. A man sitting on the left side of the orchestra about a dozen rows back became suddenly ill during the concerto's third movement. The hall's staff was able to wheel him out within moments. The man, who remained conscious, was picked up by a city fire department ambulance and taken to Maryland General Hospital.

The conductor, the orchestra and the soloist, pianist Garrick Ohlsson, were aware of what was happening but did not let it interfere with the performance, which continued uninterrupted.

It was the best playing I have ever heard from Ohlsson. There was complete mastery of the piece -- whether in the crashing chords of the first movement, the sotto voce, legato octaves of the second, the consolatory dialogue between piano and solo cello of the third or the tortuous chains of notes in the gossamer textures of the fourth.

Conductor and orchestra responded spiritedly to the soloist, and there was some particularly lovely playing from hornists David Bakkegard and Mary Bisson and from cellist Mihaly Virizlay.

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