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With Music Loud

July 17, 2007

With music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!

— Samuel Taylor Coleridge
A recent contender for the classical-music world's loudest piece attempted to blow away the Lincoln Theater audience at Napa Valley's Festival del Sole, but the shotgun failed to go off. Yes indeed, there is a part for shotgun in John Corigliano's Circus Maximus, a work for concert band that has garnered a lot of publicity and performances since its premiere in 2004.

With a theatrical flair worthy of P.T. Barnum, Corigliano's music certainly impressed listeners: They awarded conductor Jerry Junkin and his Wind Ensemble a hearty standing ovation, although a couple of people left beforehand covering their ears from pain. More deserving of accolades were the earlier works on the program, selections from The Danserye by the Renaissance composer Tielman Susato, and Igor Stravinsky's Concerto for Piano and Wind Orchestra.
Volume vs. Merit
Is Circus Maximus the loudest acoustical piece ever? Even without the shotgun, it reaches at least two ear-splitting climaxes. Moreover, it has many musicians stationed throughout the perimeter of auditorium, so patrons are trapped in a circus of brass instruments belting out that maximus. In numbing cacophony, it is certainly right up there, along with Christopher Rouse's Gorgon, Edgard Varèse's Amerique, and Jon Leifs' Hekla. But if volume alone is a sign of artistic merit, musical cognoscenti would confine their patronage to amplified rock-concert performers. Was Circus worthy in the musicological chops department?

As with Barnum, the barker's description is enticing (hear Corigliano describe his music online). The work represents Western culture's circus maximus — an overabundance of entertainment that will distract us from the barbarians at the ecological gates. There is a siren call for constant change, echoing the desires of the ancient Circus Maximus mob in Rome.

The tranquility of nature is drowned out by (as Corigliano puts it) "the hyper night music of the cities." "A carnival of sonoric activity" includes a band marching down the aisles while "exuberant voices merge into chaos and a frenzy of overstatement." A section titled "Prayer" offers "hope that we can figure a way out of the cacophony of our lives so we can have a balance." But veritas intrudes: A dissonant chord grows in intensity, drowning out the prayer music until "a gunshot ends the work" (usually).

These elements were duly provided in eight musical sections of varying effectiveness, described in order of appearance. "Introitus" broadcast an impressive fanfare from 11 trumpets spaced around the hall. Unfortunately, this was followed by the most tired and limp saxophone quartet music I've ever heard, the "Siren" section, played in the balcony. No sailor I know would experience a twitch of attraction for these gals.

But "Channel Surfing" revived the dramatic thrust. Five groups of players dotted the hall playing a speedy round-robin of cartoon music, big-band music, hunting music, cha-cha, kletzmer, and so on. "Night Music I" was supposed to represent nature, but except for a few animal howls it did little to engender the outdoors. This section should have been a place for greater tonality.

"Night Music II" was better, portraying hectic city life with bits and snatches. The marching band in the "Circus Maximus" section was fun to watch, but ordinary to hear. "Prayer" was nice, in a tonal-generic sort of way, but a decent melody would have been even more welcome at this point. Finally, "Veritas" sounded conclusive — and ironic — as intended, but of course failed to deliver the "promised" shot (signs were posted everywhere warning listeners of the shotgun).
Not Really a Symphony
All in all, despite the evident audience enthusiasm for the combination of music, "plot," and spatial gimmickry, the music lacks inherent staying power. The "Introitus" music returns during "Veritas," but in general, Corigliano's effort is far too discursive and uneven in quality. The music may continue to appeal, however, to those valuing cinematic qualities over internal cohesiveness. That the composer calls Circus Maximus his Symphony No. 3 is wishful thinking. It's really a suite.

In addition to the several sprightly dances of the Dutch composer Susato (1510-1570), the first half of the program was graced with an outstanding performance by pianist Anton Nel in the Stravinsky concerto. His attacks were incredibly spiky and on-the-money rhythmically in the outer movements. By contrast, he magically turned the central Largo into an almost Romantic ode that brought tears to my eyes. This, in 1923 (revised 1950) neoclassic Stravinsky.

Conductor Junkin is to be congratulated for fine work in all pieces, especially the difficult-to-coordinate Corigliano. Along with his baton talents, he was a fine speaker, introducing the Corigliano extravaganza in a clear and entertaining way. And this at short notice due to the composer's inability to attend due to illness.

Jeff Dunn is a freelance critic with a B.A. in music and a Ph.D. in geologic education. A composer of piano and vocal music, he is a member of the National Association of Composers, USA, a former president of Composers, Inc., and has served on the Board of New Music Bay Area.