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John Corigliano in Edmonton

October 25, 2010

I was delighted to find out that John Corigliano would be spending a week in Edmonton during my rehearsal period for La boheme.  He was in residence at the University of Alberta, giving master classes and lectures, but most importantly supervising a performance of his Circus Maximus, which was played at the Winspear Center last Thursday night.

Circus Maximus is a HUGE piece, requiring a massive contingent of instrumentalists– mostly wind players.  By my count there were 111 players in this performance, mostly arrayed on the stage of the Winspear Center, but with at least two dozen in various surround-sound locations throughout the concert hall’s main floor and balconies.  And this does not even count the firearms guy who fires the rifle which triggers the final blackout and end of the 40-minute piece.  It is clearly a daunting undertaking to mount a performance of Circus Maximus, and it is something that you CANNOT miss if you ever have a chance to hear it.

I count myself in a very fortunate group of people who have managed to hear Circus Maximus on more than one occasion!  The first time was last Spring at Northwestern University, as part of their big Corigliano Festival.  When I heard that U of A was performing it this month I hoped desperately that I would not have a rehearsal that evening.  In fact our final dress rehearsal was that morning at 11 am (not particularly pleasant) with an audience of a couple thousand students (very fun), and I was free to hear John’s piece, and even managed to coerce several of the cast members of La boheme to come along.

The piece itself is extremely hard to describe.  Inspired by the Roman Circus it is full of brutality, and draws on the manic need the Roman government felt to distract the populous from the destruction it would fairly soon experience.  This manic overload of stimuli, and danger of imminent destruction resonates deeply for John to today’s society, in particular New York City, and New York’s modern influence is felt heavily throughout the piece.  The first movement “”(Introitus ) with its rips of brass surrounding the audience, gives way to  “Screen/Siren” which is dominated by a far-off saxophone ensemble.  Waves of sound that are overwhelming and come at the listener from 360 degrees, alternate with passages that are hard to locate, and which the listener’s ears need to strain to hear.  “Channel Surfing” is a montage of stimuli that each of us has experienced from our own sofas, while “Night Music I” and Night Music II” are evocations of nightscapes in prairie and city respectively.  The climax of the piece is a massive chord played by every instrumentalist in the room.  Billed as the “loudest chord ever played in a concert hall” it does not fail to satisfy, and especially on this second hearing, had me just shivering to soak the sound in.  The chord melts away over the course of 2 minutes, eventually leaving a single clarinet sustaining.  Never before has a single note played by a single player felt so meaningful and satisfying.

The concert was an overwhelming experience, and I was so pleased to have several of our cast members along for the ride.  Jon-Paul likened it to the first time he heard Le Sacre du Printemps performed, and how staggering that was, and I know exactly what he is talking about.  It is just amazing that that amount (and kind) of sound is being generated by living breathing individuals, and that we are sitting in the middle of it.  As I walked back to may apartment following the performance, my ears felt as if they had been scrubbed clean.  VIGOROUSLY scrubbed clean.  Refreshing.  It may be a long long time before I hear the piece performed again live, but this will be ringing in my ears for many many days.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Peggy permalink
    October 26, 2010 10:28 pm

    And Naxos is releasing it’s first ever surround-sound Blu Ray audio next month – and it is CIRCUS MAXIMUS. I heard it in an early listening session with amazing speakers and it was a phenomenal and visceral (to say the least) recording… UT at Austin Wind Ensemble – who commissioned and premiered the work with Jerry Junkin are on that recording. (The same as the non-Blu Ray release on Naxos from 2009)

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