CORIGLIANO: Mr. Tambourine Man: 7 Poems of Bob Dylan (2003). 3 Hallucinations (from Altered States; 1981).
Hila Plitmann (amplified soprano); Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, JoAnn Falletta, cond.
Naxos 8.559331 (B) (DDD) TT: 52:21

Current pop music sounds nothing like that of sixty years ago. The jazz-based song that inspired Berlin, Gershwin, Arlen, and Duke has mostly died out. The new pop song sounds nothing like it, thanks to R &B and Bob Dylan, among other things. Dylan changed mainly pop-lyric writing with a blend of folk ballad, the Beats, and the Bible, and he created several generations of superior songwriters: the Beatles, the Stones, Joni Mitchell, Warren Zevon, Van Dyke Parks, all the way to Sheryl Crow and Gillian Welch. Where a superior lyricist like Ira Gershwin would joke that any connection between his lyrics and genuine poetry was purely coincidental, all of the post-Dylan writers consciously strove to write poetry. I don't judge their success, but simply describe an attitude.

American composer John Corigliano makes the (frankly incredible) claim that he had never heard Dylan's music before, mostly because folk music didn't interest him. Dylan was until recently terra ignota to him. The soprano Sylvia McNair commissioned a song cycle from him, and he needed texts. A friend suggested Bob Dylan. Rather than listen to the songs - so he could avoid the musical influence - Corigliano simply looked at the lyrics as he would any other poetry and chose seven Dylan texts, some well-known, others not: Mr. Tambourine Man, Clothes Line, Blowin' in the Wind, Masters of War, All Along the Watchtower, Chimes of Freedom, and Forever Young. He set the lyrics as he would set any lyric, and that becomes problematic. Dylan is a faux primitif. Urban, Beat imagery mingles with folksy diction. However, Dylan's folk-based musical idioms bridge the gap. Corigliano's high-Modern style does not. The effect is a little like hearing Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" declaimed by Margaret Dumont. Furthermore, I can't find one memorable song in the set. Unlike Bernstein and Rorem, Corigliano's not an especially gifted melodist. Many of these songs exhibit a great amount of skill -- I think especially of the chorus of "Mr. Tambourine Man" -- but not a lot of imagination. The gestures come across as second-hand. I except "Clothes Line," notable for a skillful portrayal of a disturbing psychological current beneath a simple narrative, and "Forever Young," which, if not memorable, still is beautiful. I don't think it coincidental that both songs work the vein of Copland pastoral. It also interested me how similar at points -- on a very abstract level, of course -- Corigliano's settings were to Dylan's. For example, in "Chimes of Freedom," both composers use a similar rhetorical movement at the recurring line, "An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashin'." Corigliano has linked the songs together ingeniously, but, again, most of the songs themselves don't reward the kind of listening it takes to ferret out the connections.

Corigliano has also had a small, though successful career (in the sense that he keeps getting jobs) in film music. Three Hallucinations comes from music to the Ken Russell film. The movie (about a scientist who takes hallucinogens to discover spirituality) has dated badly, its silliness even more howlingly apparent than at its first release. I remember, however, Corigliano's music as quite effective in context. In concert, it mostly just lies there, with Corigliano giving free rein to his worst habits -- moony, miasmal aural hazes that go absolutely nowhere, ersatz-Ivesian bubbling stews without any of Ives's interest. The best music is the fast music, probably because Corigliano actually had to think of all those notes and their relation to one another. He couldn't simply switch onto automatic. Unfortunately, most of the piece is slow, slow, slow.

Of the performers, Hila Plitmann stands out. She lends the songs a distinction most of them don't deserve. Corigliano originally wrote the songs for voice and piano. When he came to orchestrate it, rather than think about an economic orchestration, he specified a miked or "amplified" soprano, simply so she wouldn't have to shout or scream above his kitchen-sink orchestra. Falletta and the Buffalo Phil do the best they can with what the composer gives them, and Falletta really makes an effort to provide Plitmann with sensitive support. The sound is fine, if not spectacular.

S.G.S. (November 2008)