I remember the moment quite clearly: I was walking down the hallway around noon at the University of Texas at Austin, where I was doing my Masters work. Having just eaten, my body began to slip into post-lunch coma; a nap on the comfy couches in the upper corridor seemed imminent. Suddenly my body and mind were reawakened by an enormous burst of noise erupting from the concert hall. To this day, this is the loudest sound I have heard performed by acoustic instruments. It was the opening chord in John Corigliano's Circus Maximus--Symphony No. 3 for large wind ensemble, a recording of which has just been released on Naxos, performed by the University of Texas Wind Ensemble under the very able baton of Jerry Junkin.
During the performance of Circus Maximus, instrumentalists are spread throughout the concert hall. This spatial arrangement allows Corigliano to create surround-sound effects, place a smaller ensemble offstage, and even at one point have a rather hokey marching band parade around the audience. Experienced live, this effect is striking, especially with many musicians involved (everything is truly bigger in Texas, and the wind ensemble is no exception). Yet, this, along with the sheer volume of the sound, creates a problem for recording, and it epitomizes that no matter how much one likes to listen to music in the home, car, or gym, the concert hall is still the best place to witness this sort of spectacle. Having been at the premiere performance, I can attest to the sheer beauty and warmth this music has in this concert hall. Like other very large ensemble recordings--e.g., the opera recordings of Wagner that to my ear just don't do the production justice--the shine and luster don't come through on the disc. And this is no fault of the recording engineer, Richard King, who did an outstanding job taking this surround sound music and making it work as well as possible on a stereo CD. The various spacialized parts are spread around the stereo field to create a sense of space, and yet they maintain the tight feel of an ensemble in front of the listener. It's just not the same as live performance.
Musically speaking, Corigliano's classical chops, such as his formidable skills at orchestration, really shine through in this piece. The loud sound masses and noise clusters are incredible, especially when coming from all over the concert hall. Not all composers are able to come up with such huge and rich timbres, especially with an ensemble completely devoid of strings, and yet this piece contains many sonically striking and sometimes shocking moments. Also, the two central slow and soft movements, "Night Music I" and "Night Music II", are gorgeously orchestrated and wonderfully performed. Set on top of slowly changing drones and percussive webs, the music beautifully floats through the clarinets, horns, and flutes, evoking an evening song somewhere between Bartók and Crumb. The final movement of the work displays Corigliano's command of classical voice leading and harmony. Called "Prayer", this five minute chorale succeeds at offsetting the noisy and hectic music found throughout much of the rest of the piece and brings the work to its sonic and emotional climax.
Corigliano might be the American composer most associated with postmodernism, in the sense that the meaning of his music comes out of his referencing of musical material already loaded with social and cultural meaning. In his own words: "If I have my own style, I'm not aware of it. I don't think of style as the basic unifying factor in music, as many composers do today. I feel very strongly that a composer has a right to do anything he feels is appropriate, and that stylistic consistency is not what makes a piece impressive." In and of itself, this is a fine idea; however, in the case of Circus Maximus, it is not apparent that Corigliano has an intimate relationship with all that he is using and referencing. Listening to the music, it is clear that Corigliano grew up with large-C Classical music, and is far more familiar with Mahler, Mozart, and Bach than Cage, Coltrane, and Zeppelin. There is nothing inherently wrong with this--one of the basic principles of being an American is that we are all able to choose what we are into and what we are not. In this piece, Corigliano seems to be trying to step out of his classical mold--making a piece that has more to do with his adventurous film score for Altered States than his more traditional Symphony No. 1 and Symphony No. 2 (which, though traditional, have both won major awards such as the Grawemeyer Award and Pulitzer Prize; no such award has yet been given to Circus Maximus)--yet when we dig deep into this music, we see the Classical composer in Corigliano doesn't quite want to go away, and ends up dominating the resultant musical discourse. Issues then arise when Corigliano tries to reference things out of the large-C comfort zone. The jazz references seem especially forced. The "Channel Surfing" movement also suffers, sounding more like some alternate universe where band, mambo, and circus music dominate the airwaves than anything referencing our own culture. In his own words, when describing his use of Bob Dylan texts for a song cycle from the year before Circus Maximus: "...I had always heard, by reputation, of the high regard accorded the folk-ballad singer/songwriter Bob Dylan. But I was so engaged in developing my orchestral technique during the years when Dylan was heard by the rest of the world that I had never heard his songs." Without having been immersed in this music throughout his life, the results Corigliano achieves with some of his references are often just not convincing.
Criticisms aside, this piece and recording are still quite simply required listening for anyone interested in the concert band. The work's enormous sonic pallet and artistic ambitions are something that more band composers should strive for, and hopefully this not only leads to more ambitious composition but also more ambitious commissions by wind ensembles. Furthermore, the performance by the Jerry Junkin and The University of Texas Wind Ensemble is just stellar. It is amazing to think that this is a college group. The ensemble playing is sharp, rhythmically tight, brilliantly in tune...and loud. Loud enough to be worthy of the title Circus Maximus. -- NewMusicBox.com, Sam Pluta, March 9, 2009
John Corigliano is widely known either for his score for the movie "The Red Violin", or for his First Symphony, inspired by the AIDS crisis. His Second Symphony - for which he won the Pulitzer Prize - was for strings alone, so he "answers" it here with his rather grand third symphony for winds and percussion. In eight movements that are played without pause, Circus Maximus takes as its inspiration the similarities between the high decadence of the final days of the Roman empire and the present time. The piece "was built both to embody and to comment on this massive and glamorous barbarity," according to the composer, and it does so in part by surrounding the audience with not only the large concert band on stage but almost as many other musicians placed carefully around the hall. The liner-notes include the composer's map which precisely places each of the musicians, including what tier of the seats they are to stand in! The sixth movement even features a small marching band marching through the aisles of the concert hall, and the piece ends with an actual gunshot - was there ever a band piece more deserving of a surround-sound recording? Better still, paired with a carefully-produced video so we can see all the inherent theater in the piece at the same time? Sadly, what we have here is a traditional stereo recording - but it appears to be the first time the work has ever been recorded, so something is certainly better than nothing. The piece is brutal, in a quasi-Shostakovich vein in its louder passages, but, as with Mahler, there are longer stretches of quieter motion which make the full ensemble passages feel that much more intense. This is, without question, one of the most important pieces written for band in some time, but from a few listens, I'm not positive that it's a "masterpiece", though this recording sure does make me want to experience the piece in concert. Fans of band music need to hear it at least once, and the University of Texas makes it hard to believe that it's a college group performing. The CD is nicely rounded out by Corigliano's transcription of his own Gazebo Dances - originally written for four-hand piano, but reminiscent of American outdoor band concerts and thereby ideally suited for the medium. It's a delightful work, anchored by a long, gorgeous slow movement. There are several other recordings of this work, and this is the best I've heard. It's nice to see this recording on the Naxos American Classics Series instead of the Wind Band Classics series. Perhaps those drawn to new American music will dip their toe in this and like what they hear. For a contemporary band recording, though, I'd recommend Junkin's recent Grainger disc with the Dallas Wind Symphony first. -- MusicWeb International, Benn Martin, October 2009
John Corigliano's Third Symphony (2004), subtitled Circus Maximus, is scored for large wind ensemble, portions of which surround the audience in order to suggest ancient Rome's decadent theatrical excess (we call this The Super Bowl). Instead of Rome's famous 300,000-spectator arena, today we have (as the composer reminds us in his rather pompous notes) "500-plus" TV channels and unlimited entertainment access, including all the violence, stupidity, and pornography we need and crave.
The piece is an eight-section tone poem lasting 35 minutes. It opens with blaring fanfares (these will recur) and moves through sultry saxophones, Zappa-ish clutter (`Channel Surfing'), an Ivesian marching band walking down the aisle, and stale bits and pieces of jazz sure to keep students and bored band audiences winking (when they are not nodding off). Two adjacent `Night Music' movements pass the time. Kancheli-esque blasts either awaken or murder snoring offenders. After the noisy climax, a homey but blurry Copland-ish chorale suggests some sort of `Prayer'--is this for the Romans or the audience? Maybe it's for the composer: the piece ends with a gunshot pointed toward a seat in the rafters (photo included).
This will appeal to a certain kind of audience. There is an irony in the composer's finger- wagging at "Entertainment" consumption and what he has created, which is just that (and I mean "just"). This will probably become a staple of the university wind band repertoire, and I'm sure someone is already plotting an SACD surround-sound recording. You might want to wait for that, if you must have this. The Gazebo Dances (1972) are arrangements of pieces originally written for piano four hands (and recorded in that form on CRI 659). Affable and appealing (especially the splendid `Overture'), they serve to remind us of this composer's youthful genius before careerist distractions set in. The University of Texas at Austin student players sound great -- American Record Guide, Allen Gimbel, May/June 2009
The Circus Maximus of ancient Rome was perhaps the spectacle with the biggest audience in human history; located in a natural amphitheater, it entertained up to 300,000 people with chariot races, fights with wild animals, and more. Composer John Corigliano, in his Circus Maximus: Symphony No. 3 for large wind ensemble, both evokes the atmosphere of the Roman circus and compares it to the texture of modern entertainment, specifically television. The work is in eight movements, and in both the circus movements and the third "Channel Surfing" movement, Corigliano revels in enormous contrasts, with sirens, percussion barrages, and a gunshot. These are set against two pieces of very quiet Night Music, symbolizing the efforts of contemporary people to escape their frenetic environment. Whether or not it strictly holds together, the work is very absorbing, and its gestures are large and precise in spite of all the garish effects. Corigliano has emerged as a composer who is neither strictly modernist nor neo-Romantic, and he has done well to choose that most purely American of ensembles, the university wind band, for this work; many such groups have attained a very high technical level, and the University of Texas Wind Ensemble delivers an ideal performance here. Circus Maximus, which relies in certain passages on spatial separation of instruments, would be an ideal candidate for a true audiophile recording, but the use of the space in Austin's Bass Concert Hall here achieves strong differentiation among the soloists, and the student musicians play their hearts out. The Gazebo Dances for band, originally written for two pianists, is a work of Corigliano's youth; it is less concentrated that his mature pieces, but his voice is recognizable; quite a feat in 1972, when self-serving avant-gardes ruled music. This is a fine entry all around in Naxos' American Classics series, which is creating a group of just those. -- Allmusic.com, James Manheim, November 2009