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Saturday, October 1, 2011

Concert Review: Ten Years After Tragedy

John Corigliano's One Sweet Morning premieres at the Philharmonic.
Alan Gilbert leads the New York Philharmonic.
Photo by Chris Lee. © 2011 New York Philharmonic.
On Friday night, the New York Philharmonic unveiled composer John Corigliano's One Sweet Morning, a moving song cycle commissioned to mark the dark decade since the World Trade Center fell on September 11, 2001.

Now 73, Mr. Corigliano has a long history with this orchestra. His father, John Corigliano Sr., was the concert-master of the orchestra for 23 year. The ensemble has a history of championing his brand of American post-Romanticism. But when he was commissioned to compose music on the subject of September 11th, he intially refused, not wanting to provide a soundtrack to the images of that horrific day.

Instead, he turned to poetry, creating a song cycle, One Sweet Morning. (The title comes from the final poem, written by Yip Harburg, the librettist for The Wizard of Oz.) Mr. Corigliano chose four poems. A Song for the End of the World by Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz depicts the dreaded, anticipatory hush before apocalyptic events. The heat of battle itself  is portrayed with a setting of a bloody passage from Homer's Iliad. The traumatic effect of war on a loved one is shown in War South of the Great Wall, a poem by Li Po. The work ends with a new orchestration of Yip Harburg's poem "One Sweet Morning" which paints an idyllic dream of peace.

Stephanie Blythe's rich, dark mezzo plunged to astonishing depths of the contralto range in the first poem. The Homer passage mixed sung narrative and sprechstimme, the long list of fallen Trojan heroes standing for everyone killed on both sides of the U.S.'s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Li Po poem was accompanied with exotic percussion, including an authentic Chinese war drum creating dread-filled, throbbing rhythms.

Suddenly, after a tremendous, atonal crescendo, the smoke and dust swirled away and Ms. Blythe began to sing the long lyric lines of One Sweet Morning. Mr. Harburg's lyrics express the idea of rebirth and peace after conflict. The rose imagery and solemn chords create an almost Mahlerian mood, but the sound is distinct. As the melody spun forth, the song rose on the final repetitions of the word "morning", bringing balm to the listener even as it questioned the events of the past decade.

The new work was preceded by Samuel Barber's Essay No. 1, an orchestral tone poem in two sections. This work, a direct cousing of the famous Adagio for Strings, served as an effective curtain-raiser for the evening. Strong brass playing and lush strings were effectively lead by music director Alan Gilbert.

The second half of the concert featured the Seventh Symphony of 19th century romantic Antonín Dvořák . This is one of the Czech composer's more serious works, and one of the staples of the orchestral repertory. It's not the orchestra or the conductor's fault that the Seventh seemed a little lightweight after the emotional searing of Mr. Corigliano's piece. That said, the Seventh featured a spectacular slow movement, never taken too slowly, and gorgeous contributions from the Philharmonic horns and woodwinds.

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