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Review: John Corigliano’s Mr. Tambourine Man

March 8, 2009

Sometimes classical music seems to be really good at finding itself a few steps behind the times.  While often this may be true, I wouldn’t be hosting a classical music show on WRSU if I didn’t believe that there was much more to classical music than antiquated boring music.  In my mind, that classical music is still a vibrant, living tradition.  There are countless people today creating new music in this genre and even more examining the masterpieces to explore how it best relates to our lives today. 

            One such example that I think would be of greater-than-normal interest to the WRSU listening community is John Corigliano’s song cycle Mr. Tambourine Man, for a solo singer and orchestra. As the title of the piece alludes, the song cycle are settings of Bob Dylan’s lyrics, though the music bears no resemblance to the folk master’s music. 

I find the piece exciting for a number of reasons.  Corigliano was able to find source material in these poems that resonates with today’s culture, and in setting the texts was able to use a musical language that I believe is accessible to people without diluting the music or texts with unnecessary pop music references.  It is also very interesting how the song cycle sets itself apart from the Bob Dylan originals in their agility to respond to individual emotions and ideas the texts (as folk music generally repeats the music ideas while changing the text). 

I also find the relationship between Corigliano and Dylan to be interesting – two musicians born a few years apart, Corigliano being the slight elder.  The two have also explored musical styles outside their original realms during their career and today are considered elder statesmen in their genres.  But that all only provides a little extra interest in a piece that is already excellent.

The music is great because it responds and contributes culturally to our world today.  The lyrics, or probably more appropriate in this case poems, were specifically chosen to tell a story – a bildungsroman of sorts for a person growing up in the turbulent times of the 1960’s.  Mr. Tambourine Man is an introduction that drums up excitement in what will follow and establishes the sense of unease.  Clothes Line explores youthful innocence in a chaotic world.  Blowin’ in the Wind, which covers a large maturity gap from the previous song, begins to show the singer beginning to ask questions about the world.  The peacefulness of the previous song is now replaced by disturbed brooding and an anger that is being held back ever so slightly only to be unleashed during the next song, Masters of War.  The song is set fairly predictably, as an unsubtle outpouring of anger towards the cruelty of the world and more specifically its leaders.  Corigliano’s ability to use the forceful articulation of the hard C sound in “Come, [come] you masters of War” captures the violence of the lyrics very well.  All Along the Watchtower explores a different sort of anger towards injustice.  Corigiliano sets the lyrics as a conversation of two different people, one with frustration at his place in the world and another, the jaded pleading for relaxation.  The conflict is not necessarily resolved, and, save for an outburst of a wildcat the song ends somberly, setting up Chimes of Freedom.  This song, the last in the story arc, is a hopeful call for a common man of sorts.  The postlude, Forever Young, easily the most beautiful setting of the group, is as Corigliano says, a “folk-song benediction.” 

Paired with Mr. Tambourine Man, is Corigliano’s music for the movie Altered States.  I must confess I haven’t seen the movie, but do intend to.  The orchestra’s performance of the work as a whole is very convincing and memorable. 

If you have an opportunity to listen to Corigliano’s Mr. Tambourine Man, especially if you are a fan of Bob Dylan’s original songs, you really should.  In the next coming weeks you’ll be able to hear it on my show Endless Possibilities – Wednesdays 6-8pm on WRSU. 

This was a review of the Naxos release Mr. Tambourine Man by John Corigliano and performed by Hila Plitmann – Soprano and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, JoAnn Falleta conductor

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