Saturday, May 20, 2017

Never buy back your soul

I attended another wonderful Detroit Symphony Orchestra concert last night. The piece that got all the attention and drew the crowds (for 4 performances) was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the groundbreaking piece that ends with the Ode to Joy, a monumental hymn to peace and brotherhood. It was a wonderful performance, stirring and heart-warming, and all that. The piece is worthy of its sterling reputation.

But the primary reason why I got a ticket was for the opening piece on the program. It was *Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan* by John Corigliano. Yes, that Bob Dylan, the one who won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

I’ve enjoyed several pieces by Corigliano, including the music for the film Red Violin, from which he also created a concert piece for violin and orchestra. He is considered one of the top living American composers. I met Corigliano when he was a guest speaker at the Wayne State University composition seminar (though I think it was after I had graduated). So I was interested in something new by him.

Corigliano says he bought a book of Dylan’s lyrics – the text without the music. He was captivated by them and heartily agrees the Nobel Prize was appropriate. When Corigliano received a commission to write a song cycle he chose Dylan’s poems. He said he had not heard Dylan’s music prior to composing and refused to listen while this work was in progress.

The songs are for soprano and orchestra. Corigliano specifies the singer is to use a mic so she can use a cabaret style voice (rather than operatic) and still be heard. My one complaint was that her mic was not very loud, the orchestra frequently drowned out her words.

I grew up hearing (and, as part of youth groups, singing) Blowin’ in the Wind. It is easy for me (and likely many my age) to read the words, “How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?” and automatically mentally hear Dylan’s music. This well known tune is folksy and with the words is posing a simple philosophical question. Corigliano’s version is much more ominous and dark. Hey world, this is an important question, not at all flippant. And when we get to the words, “Yes, and how many times must the cannonballs fly before they’re forever banned?” we see the composer really does want us to stop and take the question seriously. There are dire consequences if we don’t.

After that came Masters of War. I don’t think I’ve heard the Dylan music for this one (or for the others beyond Tambourine Man and Blowin’). The words of this one are aimed at those who wage war and who build things for waging war. This song includes these words:
Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul
The song Chimes of Freedom featured a couple extra sets of orchestra chimes, those long thin bells seen in percussion sections. The extras were put alongside the hall behind the box seats. Some of its words:
Tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake
Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an’ forsaked
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing…
Tolling for the deaf an’ blind, tolling for the mute
Tolling for the mistreated, mateless mother, the mistitled prostitute…
After all the noise of these two the last song is Forever Young, an amazingly simple and serene moment.

At the start of the program director Leonard Slatkin pointed out the connections between the texts of the evening’s two pieces. One very much against war, the other promoting peace and unity.

In all, wonderful music by both Corigliano and Beethoven.

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