CORIGLIANO: Circus Maximus -- Symphony No. 3 for large wind ensemble (2004). Gazebo Dances for band (1972).
The University of Texas Wind Ensemble/Jerry Junkin
Naxos 8.559601 (B) (DDD) TT: 52:54
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Full of sound and fury, signifying . . . what? John Corigliano has succeeded in his composing career like a Powerball winner. Unfortunately, like a Powerball winner, there seems little connection between deserts and reward. His pieces, especially those written since about 1975, have made a huge splash (Symphony No. 1, Ghosts of Versailles, etc.) and then sunk. If not the actual works, people do remember the original success, and Corigliano keeps getting commissions. I find his scores in general bland and facile, gimmicked-up either musically or programmatically to replace genuine interest.

Of late, Corigliano has taken on the role of social Jeremiah. Thus, the Symphony No. 1 was "about" the plague of AIDS. To me, that was the only interesting thing about it. I fell for the hype, bought the CD, and listened to it exactly twice before I decided "comatose" was hardly a state I enjoyed. Circus Maximus responds to the coarsening and dumbing-down of American culture. Corigliano's program notes compare the deadly spectacle in the Roman arena to today's "reality shows," like Survivor and Fear Factor (are either of them still on?). To me, he stretches the analogy until it breaks. After all, we also have American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance. I don't believe the Romans had anything like those, and of course nobody on Survivor ever got eaten by a lion.

Corigliano conceived of the symphony "spatially," with three bands (one on stage, a marching band in the audience, and various groups of instruments scattered among the various tiers of the concert hall). In short, the players surround the audience (no escape!). This sonic experience doesn't translate fully to stereo, and of course I haven't got surround sound. I'm not sure the CD even provides it. At any rate, we've got these huge forces (including a 12-gauge shotgun; don't ask), and it strikes me -- as, to be fair, it did Corigliano -- that the music had better justify the resources. For me, it doesn't, although I do like two of the eight movements: "Night Music I," a rare stretch of quiet in a rackety score, and "Prayer." For the rest of it, Corigliano's composing conscience apparently fell asleep. So tied to the blueprint of his forces, the music frees itself only sporadically. Indeed, the symphony comes across as an example of the vulgar spectacle Corigliano wants to rail against. On this CD, the gimmickry extends even to the cover -- a "3-D-alistic" rendering of the title. The pot calls the kettle black.

Gazebo Dances, originally for two pianos, has proved one of the composer's most popular works. He's arranged it for both band and orchestra. It's delightfully unpretentious, with witty melodies and dance rhythms, and, thank God, you can't smell a whiff of Significance in it. It convinces me that Corigliano has mistaken his talent. This is what he ought to be writing.

One of America's premiere bandmasters, Jerry Junkin leads his Longhorns in precise, vigorous readings of both works. Corigliano has nothing in the performance to complain about. Pitch is precise, blend almost perfect. There's an occasional roughness of tone, but that tends to suit the symphony, which must have been hell to keep together, given the distances between the various forces. I can't recommend the symphony, but I can the dances. It's up to you.

S.G.S. (October 2009)