Friday, July 10, 2009

John Corigliano and Bob Dylan. Strange bedfellows?

American composer John Corigliano manages to get regular-Joe-type audiences to listen to, and even like contemporary concert music where others have failed. It's not that he is shilling for popularity. He just has the knack of writing music that has a kind of unforced accessibility. He is not out to advance the borders of what can be played in the medium at hand, but he's not a retrenchant neo-romantic conservative either. At least, not in any typical sense. His compositions The Red Violin and The Ghosts of Versailles made the violin concerto and the modern opera, respectively, things that could actually be "popular," a hard thing to do. And he did not do that by watering down his musical vision.

So when he created a somewhat ambitious work for soprano and orchestra that utilized some of Bob Dylan's most familiar lyrics, it was of a piece with his unselfconscious populism. Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan (2000) may irritate purists on the Dylan side and those on the "classical" side at the same time. Maybe. But there is a large-middle ground of folks who could, and perhaps should appreciate it. It gives a modern concert novice something very familiar to grab onto: seven of Dylan's most enduring and engaging lyrics.

Corigliano takes those lyrics and composes a completely idiomatic concert work around them (I mean idiomatically Corigliano). Hearing the familiar words of "Mr. Tambourine Man" totally divorced from the Dylan-Byrds context can at first be a little disconcerting. But then you find yourself listening to the words anew, and hearing the music itself with a more intense concentration than if it were just some "new" music. Dylan heightens Corigliano's music; and Corigliano does the same for Dylan's poetic messages. You must listen several times to absorb this work, which is true of any music worth hearing, I believe. Once you do, you may feel like I did, profoundly moved. And as a witness and participant of the moment we live in.

The version I heard was performed by soprano Hila Plitmann and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by JoAnn Falletta. They do a nice job with it and the sound is spatious. A bonus of Corigliano's Three Hallucinations comes with this Naxos release. A fine painter in tones he shows himself to be. And Naxos CDs are at a much-welcomed budget price. So perhaps you might consider a purchase.

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