John Corigliano On Composing At 80: 'An Adagio Is What I Look For'

Feb 18, 2018
Originally published on February 20, 2018 10:15 am

John Corigliano is one of America's most acclaimed composers. He's won a Pulitzer, an Oscar and five Grammys, and he's still hard at work, having turned 80 on Feb. 16.

Corigliano grew up with stage fright, even when he wasn't the one taking the stage. His father, violinist John Corigliano Sr., spent 26 years as the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic. Corigliano remembers he didn't dare sit the the hall when his father played a solo with the Philharmonic. Instead, he listened while hunched over a speaker backstage in the green room.

"I was too nervous that he might make mistakes," Corigliano recalls. "And when the difficult spots were coming I would hunch further."

Corigliano's mother, Rose Buzen, was an accomplished pianist herself. His parents were convinced he would never make it as a composer, so they did all they could to stop him. When he wrote violin sonata for his father in 1963, John Sr. refused to play it — until it won the Chamber Music Prize at the Italy's Festival of Two Worlds in 1964. "Then it got picked up and played by the concertmaster of the London Symphony, and then Roman Totenberg played it in Boston, and then my father had to take it out of the closet where he put it," Corigliano says. "And he loved it. He played it for the rest of his life."

Corigliano's anxiety didn't go away as he got older. "For many years, for like 20 years of my own composing life, I wouldn't be in the hall for the concert. I would be backstage or outside the hall. I just couldn't stand listening to my own piece," he admits.

Still, Corigliano's music has the power to move people. Justin Davidson, classical music critic for New York magazine, says Corigliano's best work is immediate and "urgent."

"People response to it with a kind of physicality," Davidson says. "It's got a visceral ability to connect."

Filmmaker Ken Russell felt that connection. After hearing Corigliano's Clarinet Concerto, he invited the composer to step out of the concert hall and into a Hollywood studio to write the score for the sci-fi horror film Altered States. "He wanted me to be wild," Corigliano says. "So I experimented with a lot of things. ... I had this incredibly good orchestra. These orchestras are some of the best in the world and I was able to do anything."

Not all the orchestra members were pleased with Corigliano's experiments. But one musician who soon became the composer's champion was conductor Leonard Slatkin.

"John is an eclectic composer," Slatkin says. "He's not afraid to use many styles in his writing. He's also a colorist; he's able to use whatever instruments and vocal forces he has at hand to create new sound worlds."

Slatkin conducted a Grammy-winning recording of Corigliano's First Symphony. The piece was the composer's response to the AIDS epidemic, with an opening movement titled "Of Rage and Remembrance."

"That was a very painful piece to write," Corigliano remembers. "I realized I had lost so many people to this horrible, horrible plague, that I had over a hundred people in my address book that died."

Over the years, Corigliano has proven his music can't be pigeonholed: He's written an opera, The Ghosts of Versailles, inspired by the story behind Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro and a song cycle for Bob Dylan's lyrics called Mr. Tambourine Man. Currently, he's working on a saxophone concerto and another opera with a libretto by his husband, fellow composer Mark Adamo. With more than 50 years in the business, Corigliano still loves to compose — it just takes a bit longer.

"When I was writing my early pieces, I did it in a hyper way because for me, composing was such a nerve-racking thing to do," he says. "Now, the whole note is my friend; an adagio is what I look for. And when I have to write a fast movement, I say, 'Oh my God.' "

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

John Corigliano is one of today's most acclaimed American composers. He's won a Pulitzer, an Oscar and five Grammys. He's also just turned 80, and he's still hard at work, as Naomi Lewin reports.

NAOMI LEWIN, BYLINE: John Corigliano grew up with stage fright. His father, John Corigliano Sr., was a violinist who spent 26 years as concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic. The composer remembers listening to his father practice feverishly before a performance.

JOHN CORIGLIANO: And then go to the Philharmonic when he played solo and sit in the green room because I was too nervous that he might make mistakes because I knew every note of the piece. And I hear the concert on the speaker, hunched over. And when the difficult spots were coming, I would hunch further.

LEWIN: His anxiety didn't go away as he got older.

CORIGLIANO: For many years, for, like, 20 years of my own composing life, I wouldn't be in the hall for the concert. I would be backstage or outside the hall. I just couldn't stand listening to my own piece.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN CORIGLIANO'S "SONATA FOR VIOLIN AND PIANO")

LEWIN: Corigliano's mother was also a musician, and his parents were convinced he'd never make it as a composer. So they did all they could to stop him. When he wrote a violin sonata for his father, Corigliano Sr. refused to play it until it won a prestigious competition.

CORIGLIANO: And then my father had to take it out of the closet where he put it because he didn't want to see any of my music and practice it and give it the New York premiere. And he loved it. He played it for the rest of his life.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN CORIGLIANO'S "SONATA FOR VIOLIN AND PIANO")

JUSTIN DAVIDSON: His best music, like the best music in any style, is immediate. It's urgent.

LEWIN: Justin Davidson is classical music critic for New York magazine.

DAVIDSON: People respond to it with a kind of physicality. It's got a visceral ability to connect.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN CORIGLIANO'S "CONCERTO FOR CLARINET AND ORCHESTRA")

LEWIN: Film director Ken Russell felt that connection. After hearing Corigliano's clarinet concerto, he invited the composer to step out of the concert hall and into a Hollywood studio to write the score for the sci-fi horror film Russell was shooting, "Altered States."

CORIGLIANO: He wanted me to be wild, so I experimented with a lot. I learned a lot. There, I had this incredibly good orchestra. These orchestras there are some of the best in the world. And I was able to do anything.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN CORIGLIANO'S "HALLUCINATION")

LEWIN: Not all members of the orchestra were pleased with his experiments.

LEONARD SLATKIN: The first cellist on that score was my mother, who berated him right and left.

LEWIN: But conductor Leonard Slatkin became a champion of Corigliano's work and programs it often.

SLATKIN: John is not afraid to use many styles in his writing. He also is a colorist. He's able to use whatever instruments and vocal forces he has at hand to create new sound worlds.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN CORIGLIANO'S "SYMPHONY NO. 1")

LEWIN: Slatkin conducted a Grammy-winning recording of Corigliano's First Symphony, the composer's response to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.

CORIGLIANO: That was a very painful piece to write. I was composing a piece because my best friend, Sheldon Shkolnik, a pianist who lived in Chicago, was diagnosed with pneumocystis pneumonia. That meant he had AIDS, and that meant in those days that he was going to die within two years. And he did. I realized I had lost so many friends to this horrible, horrible plague that I had over a hundred people in my address book that died.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN CORIGLIANO'S "SYMPHONY NO. 1")

LEWIN: Even as Corigliano was pouring out his "Rage And Remembrance," the title of the symphony's first movement, he was putting the finishing touches on something completely different, his comic opera, "The Ghosts Of Versailles."

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE GHOSTS OF VERSAILLES")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (As Figaro) Oh, no. Here we go again.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (As characters) Stop.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (As Muscovite Traders) You owe me money. Stop.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #3: (As Old Man on Ladder) You thief. You stole my daughter.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #4: (As Other Man in Room) My wife.

LEWIN: Corigliano went on to win the 1999 Academy Award for his score to the movie "The Red Violin."

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN CORIGLIANO'S "CREMONA")

LEWIN: Corigliano's music can't be pigeonholed. He's written a song cycle on Bob Dylan's lyrics. He's currently working on a saxophone concerto and another opera with a libretto by his husband Mark Adamo. At 80, Corigliano still loves to compose. It just takes a little longer.

CORIGLIANO: When I was writing my early pieces, composing was such a nerve-racking thing to do. It still is. It made me so nervous that I was kind of very hyper. And I could never write those pieces now. First of all, I'm too old to write that fast. Now the whole note is my friend. An adagio is what I look for. And when I have to write a fast movement, I say, oh, my God. What am I going to do here?

LEWIN: The anxiety may still be there, but John Corigliano has managed to prove his parents wrong. For NPR News, I'm Naomi Lewin.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE LOUISVILLE ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF JOHN CORIGLIANO'S "PROMENADE OVERTURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.