'Red' composer seeks new challenges
Sunday, January 29, 2006
Like the haunted instrument it portrays, John Corigliano's music for "The Red Violin" has had many lives.
Corigliano initially wrote most of his "Red Violin" score for Francois Girard's film without having viewed a scene. Composers usually create music for movies after shooting ends, tailoring the score to specific dramatic and visual needs. But the Girard narrative, with the eponymous instrument played on screen only by the hands of violinist Joshua Bell, required Corigliano to write all of the fiddle material and for Bell to record the solo part before anyone shouted, "Action!"
Corigliano even scooped the movie, with blessings from the director. While Girard was filming, the composer extracted themes and etudes from his movie score and created "The Red Violin: Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra" for Bell and the San Francisco Symphony. By the time Corigliano finished the underscoring for "The Red Violin" and the film opened in 1999, Bell already had performed the Chaconne with the San Franciscans, the Cleveland Orchestra and other ensembles.
Corigliano won the 2000 Oscar for best film score for "The Red Violin," which might have been enough for most composers. But Corigliano, the son of a noted former concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, knew he had more violin music in him. In 2003, he added a scherzo, andante and finale to the Chaconne to make a 40-minute violin concerto.
Enter conductor Sheffer, a Corigliano friend and colleague and founder of the now-defunct New York ensemble Eos Orchestra.
"I was advising and on the [Eos] board," said Corigliano recently from his Manhattan apartment. "I can't afford to give Jonathan money, because I'm a composer. That's not what I was there for. But I could give him a piece for his chamber group to play for strings."
The result was "The Red Violin" Suite, Corigliano's last thoughts on music from the film. To devise the suite, Corigliano recomposed sections from the film and extracted cadenzas that largely are independent of his other "Red Violin" pieces.
"Although it overlaps the concerto, there are quite long sections that have nothing to do with the concerto," Corigliano said. "It's quite a different animal. It's not developed on a big line, like the 17-minute Chaconne. There's a lot of material that wouldn't have come to light in the concert world."
If financing comes through, a Sony Classical recording of the Violin Concerto will happen in June with Bell and the Baltimore Symphony under Marin Alsop. Corigliano's "Red Violin" Suite is available on a Chandos disc featuring violinist Ella Turovsky and I Musici de Montreal led by Yuri Turovsky.
Some of the inspiration for Corigliano's various "Red Violin" musings go back to his childhood. He grew up in New York listening to his father, also named John, practice violin at home and at rehearsals for concerto appearances at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic.
"I would sit in the green room [during concerts] because I was too nervous to sit in the hall," said Corigliano. "It was really difficult for me. I must say that I took that into my adult life. Only about 20 years ago did I begin to listen to my own pieces in the hall. I didn't want it to be too real."
Those decades have brought much attention and acclaim to Corigliano, 68, whose opera, "The Ghosts of Versailles," had its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in 1991. He won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2001 for his Symphony No. 2, a reworking of the quartet he wrote for the Cleveland Quartet.
His experience composing movie music extends to the late '70s, when he supplied the hallucinatory score for Ken Russell's "Altered States" that garnered him an Oscar nomination. Aside from the Russell movie and "The Red Violin," Corigliano's only other film credit is "Revolution," made in England.
Corigliano said writing for the concert hall and opera house is a different artistic exercise from composing for movies, in which everything is specific to atmosphere, character and timing.
"When you're doing a film, you're serving a purpose," he said. "In concert music, you're not fulfilling a need. I think we do fulfill a need, but psychologically, that's not how you feel. An orchestra just says write 25 to 30 minutes of music."
Since the mammoth challenges - and big critical success, despite the paucity of subsequent productions - of "The Ghosts of Versailles," Corigliano hasn't considered writing another opera. But he said he would like to compose a musical-theater piece.
"The problem is, you need a collaborator and not a commission," said Corigliano. "That's true even for Steve Sondheim. You've got to write it first and show you can do it. Somehow, I will, but it will take a little more time to organize that.
"I want to do something new. It's always got to be something I haven't done to discover things and learn things and get excited about things I don't know."
At the moment, Corigliano's brain is percolating about a piece for wordless chorus and orchestra. Otherwise, he's doing master classes and workshops and waiting for the next artistic project to rear its head.
"It's a bit scary," he said. "It would be nice to have something to do."