CD Review: Mr. Tambourine Man/Three Hallucinations

The relationship between Hollywood and the concert hall has always been strained at best. But for me, film music and classical music have always existed peacefully side by side.

As a clarinet performance major in college, I loved studying clarinet works by such Hollywood legends as Alex North and Miklos Rozsa because of their film music. With other composers, like Aaron Copland, I knew their classical pieces before being introduced to their film scores.

I was first exposed to John Corigliano through his fiendishly difficult Clarinet Concerto. As a high school student, the piece was way beyond my technical capabilities, but I was intrigued by the wild quality of the music. Because of the my familiarity with the concerto, I went to see ALTERED STATES (1980) strictly for Corigliano’s score, his first foray into film scoring.

Mr. Tamourine Man/Three Hallucinations CD

Last year, Naxos released the pairing of two of Corigliano’s concert works. Three Hallucinations from ALTERED STATES will be of particular interest to film score fans. But the major work is the premiere of the song cycle, Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan.

Corigliano composed the 35-minute Mr. Tambourine Man at the request of soprano Sylvia McNair, with the stipulation that he choose an American text. “I wanted to set something by a living author,” said Corigliano in the liner notes. “Something that spoke to everyone–even people who did not ready poetry–in today’s language.” He bought a collection of Dylan’s lyrics”and “found many of them to be every bit as beautiful and as immediate as I had heard–and surprisingly well-suited to my own musical language.”

Corigliano decided not to listen to the original songs before the cycle was complete. “These would be in no way arrangements, or variations, or in any way derivations of the music of the original songs…I intended to treat the Dylan lyrics as the poems I found them to be. Nor would their settings make any attempt at pop or rock writing. I wanted to take poetry I knew to be strongly associated with popular art and readdress it in terms of concert art–crossover in the opposite direction, one might say.”

The piece was originally written for voice and piano, and first performed by McNair at Carnegie Hall in 2000. When he was invited to orchestrate it, “I wanted a fully-trained virtuosic concert singer who could still perform in a more ‘natural’ voice. I didn’t want her to need to give an ‘operatic’ performance of texts so antithetical to that cultivated sound just to project over the orchestra. So I have specified ‘amplified soprano’ for the orchestral version.”

Fans of Dylan’s work will no doubt find some of Corigliano’s settings a bit jarring at first. Though “Mr. Tambourine Man” certainly captures the exuberance of the 1960s, “Blowing in the Wind” is given a somber setting.  Throughout the recording, soprano Hila Plitmann (who premiered the work with Robert Spano and the Minnesota Orchestra in 2003) serves Dylan well with her excellent diction and her “natural” vocal timbre.

Mr. Tambourine Man

Mr. Tambourine Man won two Grammy awards this past February. Plitmann won the Best Classical Vocal Performance and the piece won Best Classical Contemporary Composition. Whether the work will enter the standard vocal repertoire remains to be seen. For fans of contemporary music, it once again shows Corigliano’s complete mastery of the voice and orchestra.

ALTERED STATES starred William Hurt as Edward Jessup, a university professor of abnormal psychology who experiments with sensory-deprivation by floating in an isolation tank. In his attempt to see if  “our other states of consciousness are as real as our waking states,” he experiments with drugs and experiences biological devolution.

With issues such as the death of God and the origin of man, Corigliano composed a wild and frenetic score that earned him a well-deserved Oscar nomination. He extracted Jessup’s hallucinations to create a three-movement, 13-minute concert work for large orchestra.

According to Corigliano’s program notes for the music, the three movements–Sacrifice, Hymn, Ritual–“are interconnected in this score, as well as interrelated motivically and melodically. In the film, Mr. Russell devised several extended religious hallucinations, and the outer two movements of this work (Sacrifice and Ritual) are taken directly from the original film-score.”

“Sacrifice” depicts the pagan slaying of a seven-eyed goat, superimposed against other images of death and sensuality. The second movement develops and extends the traditional hymn “Rock of Ages.” The momentum of the last movement, “Ritual,” leads to a savage ritual dance (the Hinchi Indians’ mushroom rite in the film).

Altered States

Throughout the disc, JoAnn Falletta guides spirited performances from the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, particularly in Mr. Tambourine Man. Three Hallucinations can’t quite match the ferociousness of the original soundtrack, but it is well performed nonetheless.

After a ten year hiatus from film following his Oscar win for THE RED VIOLIN, Corigliano is set to compose a new score this fall for the thriller EDGE OF DARKNESS. I, for one, can’t wait.

While this recording may not appeal to every listener, Naxos is to be applauded not only for their affordable releases, but more importantly for their continued support of classical and contemporary concert music as well as film music.

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