November 14, 2013
Corigliano: Conjurer; Vocalise
Dame Evelyn Glennie, percussion. Hila Plitmann, soprano. Mark Baechle, electronics.
Albany Symphony/David Alan Miller
Total Time: 57:43
John Corigliano is one of the most widely-performed contemporary American composers. With a catalogue of hundreds of works in a multitude of forms, he continuously finds ways to connect modern audiences to new music with engaging musical language and a great dramatic and narrative sense. The present recording represents these aesthetics quite well with a massive concerto and a work that stretches the boundaries of musical expectations.
Conjurer (2007) is a concerto for percussion and strings with optional brass. There are three movements introduces by a 2- to3-minute cadenza. Each movement bears the descriptive title “Wood”, “Metal” and “Skin,” respectively. The result is that a great variety of instruments are explored in this work by sections of percussion instrument types. Corigliano’s posed solution is to allow thematic material to be introduced by the soloist as well as the orchestra creating a unique partnership. The first cadenza begins with unpitched “wooden” percussion slowly adding pitches until material begins to appear on marimba and xylophone as well as a specially constructed wooden keyboard. Over time, the interval of a fifth becomes one particular identifiable motive that will be developed throughout the work. When the orchestra enters, they are assigned pitch material to match the rhythmic ideas presented in the opening cadenza. Overall, it is hard not to hear this movement as a distant cousin to Corigliano’s amazing score for Altered States. Some of the style is certainly there with a real contemporary intensity that only occasionally shifts into recognizable traditional harmony which tends to veer off quickly into more dissonant material. Angular writing also creates a truly unsettling feel. The kinetic energy of the first movement shifts to a more somber qualities for the central movement. Here chimes, suspended cymbal and vibraphone all contribute to the development of a truly awe-inspiring lyric idea with often rich harmonic arrival points in the orchestra. At nearly 12 minutes though, the movement itself may be a bit too long, though it is certainly the real and figurative emotional core of the work. It even seques into the final cadenza as a “talking drum” begins marking what will be a more visceral final movement that begins with dark orchestral unisons (an approach not unlike big climaxes in The Red Violin). Brass eventually enter in for a final exhilarating conclusion. According to the composer, the title for the work came from his realization that the cadenza material becomes the basis for the following movements lending the soloists the role of “sorcerer” conjuring these ideas from various objects.
Glennie is the premiere percussionist in the world and this work demonstrated her versatility throughout. The integration of percussion material with orchestra is quite different from other concertos for percussion in that here the orchestra partners more closely in both rhythmic and motivic content presented by the soloist. Resulting pitch assignments in the orchestra help lend further shape to these ideas and often are taken in their own interesting ways until pulled back by the soloist. The piece is certainly quite dramatic and is worth a listen or two to further discover the way it has been organized. The central movement is worth the price of admission. The Albany Symphony proves up to the challenge of this material showing off some of its richness in its string sections especially with fine wind interjections as well.
The second work on the disc is actually the earlier of the two. Vocalise (1999) was part of a series of commissions to a group of composers made by Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic. The challenge was to write a work that would share each composer’s message for audiences at the end of the millennium. For Corigliano, this evolved into a work that would explore the use of electronics and amplification (aspects that many concert audiences tend to dislike and avoid). Some of this familiarity certainly came from the composer’s own experiences working in film where such aspects are part and parcel of the creative process and resulting music. In this work, a soprano solo melody is introduced acoustically and gradually shifts to a microphone as the range shifts. Manipulation through instantly recording the solo and then immediately looping these ideas is also part of the piece. The same technique is applied to the orchestral sections as well. As the piece unfolds, one is reminded of the sort of intriguing vocal pieces composed back in the 1960s for Cathy Berberian. Vocalise has that sort of Berio quality at times as the melodic material is presented by the solo voice. The haunting quality of Plitmann’s voice is made more so as the content is caught up by different orchestral colors. As the orchestral backdrop grows in intensity, the vocal line becomes equally more impassioned though throughout there are fascinating shifts in dynamics that lend further shape to the line as well. An overall fascinating work that turns out to be a good pairing on this release as it tends to have flashes of that neo-romanticism in its center that balance the more unusual contemporary aspects of Corigliano’s style. Some may find the looping effects a bit gimmicky as they may be more effective in the concert hall where they are intended to wrap around the hall. The effect still works somewhat here where one gets the sense of the intention.
Naxos continues to be the go-to label for practically every musical taste. They are to be lauded for their ability to work with so many great American orchestras helping to highlight these ensembles in contemporary repertoire as well as classic pieces. Here, we even get notes from Corigliano to explain his process and the works on the album. The performances are all top notch for these world premiere recordings. Sound quality is equally well-matched imaging the orchestral well in the acoustic picture presented here.
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