07/07/2014 01:43 pm ET Updated Sep 06, 2014

Music I (Mostly) Hold Dear: John Corigliano and David Del Tredici

Discussions regarding the relationship between musical persona and sexuality are mostly wrongheaded, dumb, and beside the point. If the music is superb it doesn't matter if a transgender giraffe, homosexual zebra, or a very straight lama wrote it. Why should one care if it is a lesbian or gay, as opposed to a straight man or woman who prefers coffee to tea, who writes a great work? In regards to how music qua music is to be evaluated it shouldn't, and doesn't, matter in the least.

I say this as some might question this pairing of two gay men, John Corigliano and David Del Tredici, the former rather circumspect and the latter more public about his orientation. I do so not because they are both gay but because there is something similar about their musical profiles. I will leave it to others for whom this might matter to parse the supposed influence of their sexuality.

Both men, who are in their mid-'70s, have written large quantities of delightful music. Corigliano has written numerous dramatic, and well-conceived and received, concerti (for flute, clarinet, percussion, piano, and violin), a grand opera, song cycles and symphonies. Del Tredici's imagination seems to be most animated by the combination of words and music and thus a very large part of his output includes the voice. What they have in common is that they both write music of a highly charged and theatrical nature, music that doesn't stop until it is, or close to, over the top.

They write wonderfully for the orchestra, which is to say not only do they have a natural ability for it -- my guess is either you do or you don't -- but they obviously work hard at it as well. Corigliano and Del Tredici have made it one of their primary avenues of expression and this repertoire is far richer as a result.

They are interested in the orchestral medium for a number of reasons. The large modern orchestra can play really loud and really soft, and both composers exploit this dynamic bandwidth. Del Tredici pushes the envelope even further in a work like Final Alice, for example, by amplifying the soprano soloist and adding a section of folk instruments and saxophones to an already large orchestra. Corigliano, in Three Hallucinations from the movie Altered States, includes scoring for a large percussion section and an organ.

Their color palettes are highly varied and almost perfumed. There are never clumsy sounds- rather, each invariably glistens. These composers delight in the orchestra's many sonic combinations and treat it as a vast reservoir of sensuous possibilities.

This is not to say that this is the primary feature of their music (like early Pendercki), because for music to make an immediate impact, as well as to survive for the long haul, it must have strong, perceivable, and memorable content. The music of these gentlemen has this in spades. From their earlier works-Corigliano's Piano Concerto and Violin Sonata, and Del Tredici's Syzygy and I hear an Army, it is clear that these composers were capable of finding strong ideas and taking them on a fine journey to a satisfying conclusion. They had the strongest of musical personas and identities right from the start. As they matured, their respective languages developed and deepened significantly while, surprisingly, proceeding in opposite directions.

Corigliano started off as an extended-tonalist in the American symphonic camp probably as the result of growing up at the feet of Leonard Bernstein. (Corigliano's father was the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic when it was under the direction of this conductor among others.) The early music displays a neo-classic rhythmic vitality and jauntiness, warm and lyrical melodies, and a penchant for sweet extended harmonies. Over the years his music has become eclectic, inclusive of broader technical and aesthetic possibilities. The resultant works, like Three Hallucinations and his blockbuster hit Symphony No. 1, could be called poly-stylistic, as they include polymorphous textures, quotations of older music, aleatoric effects, and a mixture of tonal and non-tonal materials. They are less direct than what came before but more emotionally expansive and nuanced.

Recent works like The Red Violin, a concerto developed from his music for the eponymous film, and Mr. Tambourine Man, an orchestral song cycle based on poetry of Bob Dylan, show him still developing his refined sense of lyricism and drama. The former is a bravura work in the lineage of Beethoven's Violin Concerto (it is all about scales, arpeggios, passage work, and a few very good tunes), and the latter is as direct and clear as the early pieces but carries greater emotional weight.

Del Tredici moved famously in the '70s in the opposite direction, from the serial camp to unabashed tonality. This was largely dictated by his infatuation with the story of Alice in Wonderland and its wider literary penumbra (associated stories and commentary) which seemed to require a simpler and more straightforward language. In writing works on these texts he mentions that he first wrote what was decidedly tonal music, always expecting to go back and put in the "wrong" notes, but finally concluded it just didn't make sense to do so. He took a figurative beating from many of his colleagues for this apostasy, but audiences ate it up. Final Alice is the most famous of the Alice pieces, and Del Tredici calls it an "opera in concert form." It can be described as multiple variations on a simple tune whose ascending major 6th (as in "My bonnie") is so ubiquitous that it drives the listener just a little bit crazy, but this obsessiveness is at the center of the experience and is ultimately winning in its peculiar and off-kilter way.

In more recent song cycles like Lament for the Death of a Bullfighter and Chana's Story he continues to plumb the possibilities of a post-Romantic tonal language that is able to contain, hold, and -- here is the kicker- integrate, references to late Romantic, Impressionist, and lounge-lizard, music. In the vocal parts he employs a vast range, repeats words and small phrases with abandon, employs Wagnerian crescendos and pitch trajectories (like the whoop of the Valkyries!) and single note recitatives. The piano parts are busy with elaborate figuration and virtuosity -- these are no fragile accompaniments but rather present a full-fledged, if occasionally overbearing, partner.

David Del Tredici and John Corigliano did not become different composers with the change or expansion of their materials. Just as Stravinsky showed us that a composer could talk in different languages and still retain immediate identifiability and individuality, so is this the case here. A good example is Del Tredici's compression and expansion of time that carries from Szyrgy to Final Alice (usually an exponential process carried out in both directions); his heavy orchestrations that are layered with a thickness that is like impasto on a canvas; and the emotional quality of frenzied exhilaration. While with Corigliano it is the frequent presence of a finely wrought tune of a wistful nature, a looking forward and backward in musical time almost in the same glance, the fast or languidly slow move from the gentle to the barbaric, and the affect always clear and right on the surface.

These two composers have matured in a delightful way from their auspicious beginnings. Their oeuvres are worth encountering.

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