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The Stonewall Chorale celebrates John Corigliano at 70 years young
by Gwen Deely for Vocal Area Network
Posted March 30, 2008

John Corigliano (by Christian Steiner)As Bob Dylan famously said, "he not busy living is busy dying." Few composers are as successfully busy living as John Corigliano, who turns 70 this year. On Saturday, April 5 at 8 PM, the Stonewall Chorale under Artistic Director Cynthia Powell will perform a concert of American music highlighted by a special birthday tribute to John Corigliano, at St. Peter's Church, Chelsea, 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues. The program also features music by Eric Whitacre, Chris DeBlasio (both former students of Corigliano), Leonard Bernstein, Randall Thompson, Alice Parker/Robert Shaw, Howard Helvey and Samuel Barber. (Both Corigliano and Whitacre are on Stonewall's advisory board.) At the conclusion of the concert, the Chorale and audience will offer a champagne toast and birthday cake to Corigliano, who plans to attend.

If you live and/or commute in New York City, chances are you have seen John Corigliano in the subway! He is featured in an ad campaign for CUNY Lehman College where he teaches. He is also on the faculty at Juilliard. He has won many major awards, including Grammys, an Academy Award (remember the hauntingly beautiful music from The Red Violin?), a Pulitzer Prize and a Grawemeyer. Yes, John Corigliano is very much busy living, and a member of an elite group of classical composers whose works are among the most-often performed in America.

The Stonewall Chorale will perform two of his pieces on texts by two Dylans from two perspectives: Dylan Thomas's Fern Hill, as told in the voice of an exuberant, innocent child, and Bob Dylan's iconic Forever Young, as told from a wistfully knowing adult's point of view. At 70 years young, Corigliano has seen life from both sides now.

Fern Hill is based on Dylan Thomas's own childhood experience on his aunt's farm one summer. It is an intensely musical poem -- one writer referred to it as "a symphony of green and gold major" (William York Tindall in A Reader's Guide to Fern Hill). Symbolic colors are sprinkled throughout ("as i was green and carefree", "golden in the mercy of his means", and "lamb white days"). As the poem progresses, colors are combined with rich metaphors: "fire green as grass" and "the whinnying green stable," while time bends and shifts with phrases like the opening line, "Now as I was young and easy." Now/was? Our sense of time is immediately challenged: are we in the present or the past? Do they/could they co-exist?

For this child, awestruck by things adults take for granted (the greenness of grass, stars that "are in the sky all night long"), time is measured only in days and nights ("all the sun/moon long"). Under the radar of "once below a time" (instead of "once upon a time"), he is ruler of his universe. He is "prince of the apple towns" and all animal life responds, "the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold," "the calves sang to my horn"). All nature pulses with possibility, the farmhouse is alive ("the lilting house") and music is in the air ("tunes from the chimneys"). This place is somewhere not unlike paradise. The words apple and Adam appear, and phrases like "the birth of simple light," and "the sun that is young once only" conjure up the dawn of time—the garden of Eden!

But inevitable Time is reflected in the last four lines of the poem when we "wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land." The once-vibrant green is transformed to a reference of death. And in spite of, or maybe because of death's inevitability, the inexorable impulse of life compels us toward a passion for living ("time held me green and dying, though I sang in my chains like the sea"). By the end of the piece, the change is from a lyrical, carefree tone to an insistent, darker one, and when the opening line re-appears with an anguished "Oh" replacing "Now" ("Oh as I was young and easy"), the chorus sings bitterly and triple forte, as one voice at a time ascending from the bass, sings one sustained note on each word of the final phrase: "though I sang in my chains like the sea." The resultant chord is almost consonant. The main theme returns, and when the chorus fades, a dark minor insinuates itself into the penultimate measure, but resolves to major at the end.

The words in Forever Young are direct and simple. Bob Dylan may or may not have written the lyrics with his own son in mind, but they convey the sentiment any parent or elder might have for the members of the next generation.

Corigliano's melody shapes the phrase "may you stay forever young" with incredibly beautiful (but difficult) intervallic leaps for the soloist followed by a soothing melodic scale. Perhaps being forever young is not an impossible quest after all, and, like the soprano who masters the intervallic leaps, the human spirit can triumph!

It was Bob Dylan who also wrote the famously paradoxical line "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now." Certainly both Bob Dylan (over 65 himself) and John Corigliano embody that sentiment as well. When interviewed on WNYC recently, Corigliano remarked that he came upon one of his billboard advertisements recently and felt oddly validated when he saw that someone had drawn a mustache on him and wrote some graffiti. "I just loved it," he said in an article recently published in The New York Times, "that's when you really know you made it in the world." On behalf of The Stonewall Chorale, Happy Birthday, John Corigliano. Thank you for showing us how to stay forever young.

At 70 years young, Corigliano has seen life from both sides now.

Gwen Deely sings with The Stonewall Chorale.

Content Contact: Gwen Deely.
Revision Date: March 29, 2008.
Technical Contact: Steve Friedman.

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