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A Resounding Hurrah

Corigliano sets Dylan -
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'Titanic, zealous stuff.'

John Corigliano: Mr Tambourine Man. © 2008 Naxos Rights International Ltd

I'd dearly love to know what Robert Allen Zimmerman (also known as singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan) would make of Corigliano's settings of seven seminal Dylan lyrics. It seems an unlikely conjugation -- Corigliano (70) and Dylan (67); but why not?

Both are extraordinarily gifted. In 1986 Corigliano won the BAFTA Anthony Asquith Award for his Revolution. His Symphony No 1 gained the Grawemeyer Award (University of Louisville, Kentucky) and the 1999 Academy Award for an Original Music Score went to The Red Violin. The Symphony No 2 bagged a Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Dylan has been showered with accolades. His records have earned Grammy, Golden Globe, and Academy Awards, and he has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 1999 he was included among TIME Magazine's '100 Most Important People of the Century' and by 2004 Rolling Stone Magazine ranked him No 2 in its 'Greatest Artists of All Time'

Several times Dylan has been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature and this year (2008) he landed a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation for his 'profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.'

Popular music defined and charted the 60s and 70s as we listened to landmark songs; American Pie, A Whiter Shade of Pale, Eleanor Rigby, Mrs Robinson, Let it Be, Where do you go to my lovely, We shall overcome, The Times They're A-Changin', Bridge Over Troubled Waters, Ode to Billie Jo, Bohemian Rhapsody and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds among the most memorable.

Singer-songwriters Don McLean, Paul Simon, Peter Sarstedt, Keith Reid and Freddie Mercury are all represented above yet other than Lennon & McCartney no-one proved more influential than Dylan, the boy who came out of Hibbing, crucible of the Mesabi iron ore ranges; Minnesota.

And now we hear him kitted out as never before.

Listen -- Corigliano: A Prelude : Mr Tambourine Man
(track 1, 1:34-2:36) © 2008 Naxos Rights International Ltd

Corigliano chose not hear Dylan's music and worked solely from the lyrics. 'A Prelude : Mr Tambourine Man in a fantastic and exuberant manner redolent of the 60s, precedes five searching and reflective monologues that form the core of the piece, and A Postlude : Forever Young makes a kind of folk-song benediction after the cycle's close,' the composer explains.

As it turns out A Prelude : Mr Tambourine Man has characteristics that bring to mind sections of Sir William Walton's Façade (1922) to the 'rap-like' words of Edith Sitwell (1887-1964). And Jerusalem-born soprano Hila Plitmann comes across as an excellent choice for the Naxos initiative.

Track 2, Bob Dylan's 1967 Clothesline Saga, sometimes referred to as 'Clothes Line' ( Dylan 'The Basement Tapes'), is a parody of Bobbie Gentry's 1967 ballad -- the conversational, enigmatic, Mississippian Ode to Billie Joe.

'Ode' was a massive number-one hit in the USA, and a big international seller. Gentry's first person narrative reveals a quasi- Southern Gothic dialog of the narrator's immediate family at lunchtime on the day that 'Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.'

Papa said to Mama, as he passed around the black-eyed peas
'Well, Billy Joe never had a lick o'sense, pass the biscuits please
There's five more acres in the lower forty I've go to plow.'
And Mama said it was a shame about Billy Joe anyhow
Seems like nothin' ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge
And now Billy Joe McAllister's jumped off the Tallahatchee Bridge.

Roberta Lee Streeter (also known as singer-songwriter Bobbie Gentry -- born 1944; Chickasaw County, Mississippi); was one of the first US female country artists to write and produce her own material -- drawing on her Mississippi roots to compose vignettes of the Southern United States.

Dylan's 'Clothes Line' lyrics (excerpt below) focus on routine household chores; it's equivalent shocking event buried in all the mundane details is the revelation that 'The Vice-President's gone mad!' Corigliano's setting is notable for its unruffled langour.

The next day everybody got up
Seein' if the clothes were dry.
The dogs were barking, a neighbor passed,
Mama, of course, she said, 'Hi!'
'Have you heard the news?' he said, with a grin,
'The Vice-President's gone mad !'
'Where?' 'Downtown.' 'When?' 'Last night.'
'Hmm, say, that's too bad !'

Blowin' in the Wind -- the anthem of a generation, becomes a passacaglia-lament while in graphic contrast Masters of War is shot through with passion, anger and outrage. Corigliano describes how the hammered ostinato explodes into a raucous undercurrent for All Along the Watchtower which in turn dissolves into the bell sounds of Chimes of Freedom.

Listen -- Corigliano: Masters of War
(track 4, 0:00-0:54) © 2008 Naxos Rights International Ltd

The economical serenity of Postlude : Forever Young brings this uniquely rewarding cycle to an eloquent, optimistic conclusion; a creative triumph and a testament to the enterprise of Naxos and unflinching artistry of soprano Plitmann, conductor JoAnn Falletta and members of the Buffalo Philharmonic.

Corigliano's Mr Tambourine Man was originally for voice and piano and performed by Sylvia McNair at Carnegie Hall in March, 2000. The orchestral version with 'amplified soprano' was premièred with Ms Plitmann and the Minnesota Orchestra (conductor, Robert Spano) in October 2003.

Three Hallucinations (from Ken Russell's 1981 film, Altered States) is already available on an RCA soundtrack recording with conductor Christopher Keene; also known for his recordings of Il Trovatore, David Diamond's 5th Symphony ( with the Juilliard Orchestra), the Philip Glass opera Satyagraha featuring the New York City Opera and New York City Symphony Orchestras, Anthony Heinrich's Ornithological Combat of Kings and Gottschalk's Symphony No 1: La nuit des tropiques, both with the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra.

I'm not at all familiar with the 1981 realisation of these excerpts but unless the film studio players are of stellar quality the Buffalo ensemble, recorded 2007, must be a firm recommendation. 'The three pieces -- Sacrifice, Hymn and Ritual are interrelated motivically and melodically and the outer two movements are exactly as they were in the film,' writes Corigliano. Images of 'Sacrifice' and death are followed by fragments of the hymn 'Rock of Ages'; re-introduced in the central Hymn. In the concluding Ritual the full orchestral forces are reinforced by two sets of four timpani each.

Listen -- Corigliano: Ritual
(track 10, 2:06-2:49) © 2008 Naxos Rights International Ltd

A resounding hurrah for Naxos engineers Tim Handley and Tom Lazarus. Titanic, zealous stuff.

Copyright © 12 November 2008 Howard Smith, Masterton, New Zealand




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