Juilliard Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, February 9, 2013
The New York Times, Feb. 11, 2013
Not many people know it, but we live in a golden age for contemporary concert-band music, with both well-established composers and inventive up-and-comers creating new pieces for (mostly) collegiate wind ensembles across the country. Really, it shouldn't be any surprise: what composer wouldn't want to write a new piece that will be assured weeks of rehearsal, rather than hours, and could receive literally dozens of performances within just a few years.
There's an article in this, of course, and I'm already mulling it. Meanwhile, as a music lover and as a former bandsman of many years' experience, what an amazing treat it was to encounter the 900-pound gorilla of contemporary band music, John Corigliano's Symphony No. 3 ("Circus Maximus"), in a superb live performance at Carnegie Hall. And how fortunate that Corigliano was moved to formally designate this piece a "symphony," thus asserting that posterity shouldn't brush it off to the side as a tangent to his "real work."
Admittedly I give short shrift in this review to a superb performance of Corigliano's Symphony No. 2, a regrettable result of a tight word count and much to say about the band piece. Truthfully, I must admit that I gave this symphony less than its due for several years after it earned a Pulitzer Prize, most likely because to me it was one of those Pulitzers seemingly granted as a make-up prize after worthier pieces – the Symphony No. 1 or The Ghosts of Versailles, for instance – failed to win. After all, the Symphony No. 2 is only an orchestral version of Corigliano's String Quartet, right?
Well, not so fast. Yes, the symphony is an arrangement of the quartet. But it is also an exapansion, an elaboration on what the quartet was designed to express, and an instance in which a composer wrung more depth and nuance out of an existing piece by revisiting and revising its materials. If I still feel that the earlier works I mentioned were more appropriate fodder for Pulitzer consideration – a process into which I have greater insight now, having served on the nominating committee in 2012 – I have come to recognize Corigliano's Symphony No. 2 as a strong, worthy piece in its own right… and the Juilliard performers played the heck out of it here.