John Corigliano: Tournaments Overture/Elegy/Piano Concerto/Gazebo Dances

John Corigliano has an Oscar and a number of composition prizes under his belt. His father was a renowned concertmaster for the New York Philharmonic. So he’s got some serious cred in classical music circles.

And yet the First Edition reissue of orchestral works performed by the Louisville Orchestra didn’t seem all that impressive. Perhaps the fact I was listening to this disc as well as First Edition’s reissues of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and George Crumb colored my perception. Corigliano’s set of works doesn’t possess the timbral adventurousness of Crumb or the lean expressiveness of Zwilich.

But perhaps history plays a role as well. The very first Corigliano piece I listened to was his Symphony No. 1, a work inspired by the NAMES Project AIDS quilt. The piece won a Grammy Award for best contemporary composition, and it’s tough not to feel the anguish, anger and darkness of the piece.

The works on the First Edition release feel quaint by comparison.

(It’s odd, too, since the "Tarantella" from Gazebo Dances was incorporated into the second movement of Symphony No. 1.)

Perhaps I’d have a better understanding of the pieces on their own terms. The Tournaments Overture makes colorful use of the orchestra, and the themes are largely tonal. The Piano Concerto is incredibly virtuosic, and in character, it’s probably most similar to the Symphony No. 1. The Gazebo Dances themselves are pleasant.

If anything, the pieces of this disc are on the level of adventurousness as Aaron Copland, with noticeably more dissonance. Insert the usual Seinfled disclaimer here ("Not that there’s anything …"), but personally, I was expecting a bit more.

Of course, the works on this disc predate the Symphony No. 1, so there’s another unfair bias against these pieces. The Tournaments Overture, Piano Concerto and Elegy were written in the ’60s. Gazebo Dances is the youngest piece, written in 1974. The fact one work in his entire repertoire is my benchmark is also inherently prejudiced. Perhaps I should be exploring his later pieces than his earlier ones.

Given his credentials as a film composer — the Oscar is for his work on The Red Violin, although his résumé includes Altered States — it’s difficult not to perceive this music as suitable for soundtracks. There’s an audience for that. I guess I’m not one of them.

This collection may be a good introduction for beginning listeners to explore more recent repertoire. These pieces aren’t inscrutable, and in fact, they don’t shy away from melody. Listeners looking for a bit more bite may want to try First Edition’s collection of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich instead.