OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 revived powerfully at Los Angeles Philharmonic concert

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
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Los Angeles Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Corigliano: Symphony No. 1; Brahms: Symphony No. 2
Tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m. • Feb. 9 at 2 p.m.
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Information: www.laphil.com

When the Los Angeles Philharmonic announced its 2013-2014 season last spring, I immediately put a big red circle around this weekend’s concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall because they featured John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 being played for only the second time in LAPO history. I remember hearing the first time when David Zinman conducted the Phil at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in January 1993 and being gobsmacked by the work’s power and anguish.

However, this is a different time. Gustavo Dudamel is a different conductor, and Walt Disney Concert Hall is a VERY different venue than the Pavilion. At the time of its composition, Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 was triggered by the AIDS crisis that was sweeping the nation. Many people now view the work simply as a “tragic symphony,” a la Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique.” Either reaction, says Corigliano, is fine.

“At the time [the work was written],” said Corigliano in an e-mail interview just after his 76th birthday last month, “I had lost over 100 friends and colleagues. My closest friend (for three decades) was dying, and came to the performances, accepted the dedication to him, and passed away a week later. This was a horrible time and writing my symphony was all I could do. So my feelings at the premiere were enormously influenced by my friend, Sheldon [Shkolnik], his state and the world then around me.” Corigliano subtitled the first movement Apologue: Of Rage and Remembrance.

Thanks to increase in medical treatments and national awareness, AIDS is no longer the scourge it was in 1990. “Many things have changed,” says Corigliano, “especially concerning the treatment of AIDS. So hearing the work now has been more of a nostalgic experience. The memories of my friends come back to me, and I feel grateful to be able to mourn them in this different way.”

Corigliano was age 48 and serving as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first Composer in Residence when in 1998 the CSO commissioned him to write a large work. The orchestra got more than it bargained for. It was Corigliano’s first large-scale symphonic work; the four-movement piece lasts a little over 40 minutes and the forces necessary to perform the piece are enormous.

There are extra players in every section last night, including 18 brass players in a ring behind the winds and strings. The percussion array includes two sets of timpani (Dudamel placed them on either edge of the back row); two sets of tubular chimes, placed behind the orchestra’s first and second violins; two pianos, one onstage and one off, along with two glockenspiels, crotales, two vibraphones, xylophone, marimba, snare drum, three tom-toms, three roto-toms, field drum, tenor drum, three bass drums, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, three temple blocks, tambourine, anvil, metal plate, brake drum, triangle, flexatone, police whistle, whip, ratchet, harp and four (!) mandolins. About the only instrument that Corigliano didn’t use was an organ — I think Chicago’s symphony hall didn’t have one at the time and where would they have put the console anyway?

Corigliano was on hand during rehearsals this week and attended last night’s performance. He also provided an emotional and extensive tour of the work at the preconcert lecture, far more detailed than either his original program notes or the truncated version in the L.A. Phil’s printed program. If you’re going to one of the remaining concerts, don’t miss the lecture.

Dudamel was conducting the work for the first time. He used a score, followed it carefully and brought out a great deal of both the anger and pathos in the work, along with much of the tragic lyricism. Following this weekend’s performances, the Phil will make this work a centerpiece of its North American tour beginning March 11 (DETAILS). They will perform it in six cities and, based on how splendidly Dudamel and the orchestra played last night, I would love to be in Montreal or Boston at the end of the tour to hear how everyone will have grown into this complex piece after another eight performance.

Among the highlights:
• The strings underlaying Joanne Pearce Martin’s wistful playing of measures from Albéniz’s Tango in the first movement. The effect was mesmerizing.
• The end of the second movement, described by the composer as “a brutal scream” with the overtones ringing throughout a silent Disney Hall for several seconds. Magical.
• The hauntingly soulful solos by Principal Cellist Robert deMaine and Assistant Principal Ben Hong in the third movement, Chaconne: Giulio’s Song. Sublime.
• The full-out orchestra in the many moments of rage that are embedded throughout the work. Shattering.

During the tour, Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 will be paired with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, which will make for an emotionally wrenching evening. This weekend, the companion piece is the much more pastoral Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, which will be played as part of an alternate tour program in second concerts in San Francisco and New York City and in the single performance in Kansas City.

Compared to the Corigliano, the Phil seemed like a chamber orchestra in the Brahms: two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets and two bassoons (the Corigliano had four, three, four and three, respectively); four horns instead of six, two trumpets (five), three trombones (four) and one tuba (2). On the back riser instead of that massive percussion array sat a lone set of timpani with Principal Timpanist Joseph Pereira. Nonetheless, it was enough; all forces could produce a powerful, albeit sweet sound.

Freed from having a score on a music stand in front of him and leading a work he knows well, Dudamel was in his all-out “Showtime” conducting mode and the orchestra was right with him for the entire ride. Dudamel sculpted phrases throughout, often with big swooping movements, occasionally with the barest of gestures. The first movement began with unhurried lyricism, the second emphasized drama, the third was notable for its gentle opening, and the finale blazed in full glory. By March 12, everyone will be ready for Davies Hall in San Francisco.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• For my preview story including other comments from Corigliano, click HERE.
• Corigliano’s complete program notes for Symphony No. 1 are HERE.
• One of the interesting things to come out of the preconcert lecture was that all three of Corigliano’s symphonies were written for quite different ensembles. Symphony No. 2 (which won him the Pulitzer Prize after it was composed in 2000) was written for string orchestra, while Symphony No. 3, subtitled “Circus Maximus,” was written for concert band — brass and wind ensemble.
• Corigliano’s music will return next year when Los Angeles Opera presents The Ghosts of Versailles Feb. 7 through March 1 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. DETAILS
• Of the more than 100 works that Corigliano has published, arguably the best known is his score for the movie The Red Violin, for which he received an Oscar in 1999 and subsequently created a violin concerto and other versions.
• Corigliano is one of a very few composers to have won an Oscar, Grammy, Pulitzer and a Grawmeyer Award (he won the latter for Symphony No. 1).
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.