From Film Score To Concerto

Baltimore is site of world premiere of lush, romantic Corigliano piece, 'The Red Violin'

Classical Music

September 14, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

My shoulder hurts, my back hurts, the whole right side of me hurts -- just from sitting and writing millions of notes," composer John Corigliano says early one morning from a Beverly Hills hotel. "This has been the year of writing billion-note orchestral pieces."

One of those big pieces is the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, subtitled The Red Violin, after the Francois Girard film of that name, which owed much of its artistic richness to Corigliano's score. Themes from that score provided the foundation for the concerto, which receives its world premiere this week in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's season-opening program with violinist Joshua Bell and conductor Marin Alsop.

Corigliano's muscles may still be tender by the time of those performances, but at least his nerves should be just fine. Not so the day before this interview, when he rented a car to take a typically scenic California drive and received a rude surprise.

"It's pretty scary," he says, "to push down on the brakes and find they can barely slow the car down while you're going through canyons." Several white-knuckle turns later, not unlike in Hollywood movies, Corigliano made it safely to a gas station. It's impossible to resist asking if he has any enemies. "Maybe Elliott Carter took out a contract on me," he says with a laugh.

A few decades ago, the New York-based Corigliano, 65, was among the relatively few American composers who represented the antithesis of the thorny, atonal music represented by Carter. Today, Corigliano's essentially tonal, often lushly romantic, and yet never simple style has become very much a part of the dominant musical language.

Corigliano's particular approach to melodic ideas, structure and instrumental coloring leaves some critics cold (he stopped reading reviews years ago), but an enviable assortment of high-profile commendations speaks to his achievement.

A sampling of his honors list includes the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for his Symphony No. 2; an Academy Award in 2000 for the score to The Red Violin; an Academy Award nomination in 1981 for Altered States; and the Grawemeyer Award for Best New Orchestral Compo-sition, a $150,000 prize given in 1991 for his Symphony No. 1.

That much-performed symphony, Corigliano's naked and indelible response to the toll of AIDS, has been recorded twice, an honor in itself for a contemporary work. And both recordings, by the Chicago and National symphonies, won Gram-mys. (The BSO will reprise the symphony later this season.)

The new, roughly 35-minute concerto was commissioned by the BSO, the Atlanta Symphony, the Dallas Symphony and San Francisco Ballet (which will choreograph it in 2005). In addition to the commissioning orchestras, the Philadelphia Orchestra and Los Angeles Philharmonic have also programmed it in the months ahead (all with Bell as soloist). This is exactly the kind of interest you would expect a fresh Corigliano score to generate.

Many people have already heard the first movement of the concerto, although they wouldn't have realized it at the time. Like Schumann's Piano Concerto, this work started out as a single, independent movement and then blossomed into a larger entity.

The story begins when Corigliano was hired to do the music for The Red Violin. The movie follows the history, century by century, owner by owner, of a remarkable instrument that got its ruby color -- and perhaps its soulful quality -- when blood of the violin-maker's dead wife mingled with the varnish.

Corigliano created a truly haunting theme that would serve as the violin's musical signature throughout the film and developed it to fit the changing scenes and eras in the plot. He had to finish much of the score before the actual filming began in 1997, so that the actors would have a recording available, enabling them to simulate the on-camera violin solos.

Envisioning a concerto

While the filming was going on, Corigliano used material from his score to fashion a brooding, 17-minute concert piece, which was premiered by Bell, whose music-making was featured on the movie soundtrack. This Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra, went on to be widely played. (The BSO offered it last season with concertmaster Jonathan Carney in the solo spot.)

"There are a bunch of pieces for violin and orchestra like this that aren't quite long enough to play alone in a concert, which makes them hard to program," Corigliano says. "The chaconne had a big feeling about it, so I realized it could be a first movement to a concerto."

Once he plunged into the project, Corigliano was surprised at how the creative process flowed. "It came naturally and caused me less pain than any other piece I've written," he says. "For me, composing and pain have always been connected. But I didn't fight this one. I was galvanized into writing without analyzing everything in my usual obsessive / compulsive way."

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