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John Corigliano: May You Be Forever Young

The 2017-2018 season was (is) our 30th at the New York Festival of Song. We’ve managed to cover quite a bit of ground. There were early celebrations of Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday in the fall and the winter (the Lenny celebrations officially began on his 99th birthday), and one of NY’s only acknowledgement’s of William Bolcom and John Corigliano 80th birthdays. This was accomplished through our annual program at Juilliard. Rehearsals are held during the holiday break with a large cast, hand-picked by Steven Blier, and this year directed by Mary Birnbaum. It was an amazing show, and it rightly put the spotlight on our two greatest living American composers. It’s hard to believe they are 80 now. Both of them have been important to NYFOS—we’ve commissioned premiered new works by them (including the Bolcom/Campbell opera Lucrezia), so it was a labor of love to present them in the same evening, and to introduce these two to a new generation at Juilliard. Here’s a big hug to Bill and John, and here is Corigliano’s “May You Be Forever Young” from Tambourine Man. Hila Plitman is the soprano. The lyrics are by Bob Dylan.


John Corigliano: Forever Young

I first met John Corigliano 41 years ago over dinner at a restaurant in Greenwich Village. I was a rather shy young guy, and I was out with some very worldly people, all of them friends of long standing, and all of them about fifteen years my senior. I’m not sure I made much of an impression that night. John probably saw me as merely the current boy-toy of our mutual friend, which (unbeknownst to me) turned out to be an accurate reading of the situation. But my friendship with John skyrocketed when we met again in 1996. NYFOS had commissioned ten composers to write a composite companion piece for the Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzes. John had just begun his relationship with Mark Adamo, a love that has stood the test of time. His contribution was “Liebeslied,” a quartet with duo-piano accompaniment whose only lyric is “I love you.” At next month’s NYFOS@Juilliard concert, an 80th birthday tribute to John Corigliano and William Bolcom, “Liebeslied” will end the first half.

There is no video or sound clip of that piece for me to share today—you’ll just have to come to the concert to hear it. Instead let’s listen to a song from a cycle John wrote in 2000 for soprano Sylvia McNair: “Forever Young,” from “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Sylvia had asked for a substantial piece to sing at Carnegie Hall, and her only proviso was that the poet(s) be American. John came up with an ingenious idea: to reset seven of Bob Dylan’s lyrics as concert works for piano and voice. (He has since orchestrated them.) About this surprising choice, he wrote: “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. So I bought a collection of his texts, and found many of them to be every bit as beautiful and immediate as I had heard—and surprisingly well-suited to my own musical language.”

Here is the finale to the cycle, a beautiful re-imagining of “Forever Young,” composed by a man who responds perfectly to that description: my beloved friend John Corigliano, who seems as youthful today as when I met him back in the 1970s.

(a lovely performance from its Norway premiere in 2008: Hege Monica Eskedal, soprano and Eva Herheim, piano)

William Bolcom: Soneto de la dulce queja

I’ve spent the fall with the music of William Bolcom and John Corigliano, who are the leading men in my Juilliard concert this January. They are each about to turn 80 next year, which strikes me as impossible. How could two such fiery renegades be octogenarians?

John Corigliano has been a valued friend for several decades, and it’s always a pleasure to spend time with him. My association with Bill goes back even farther, to the mid-1970s when I met him and Joan Morris after a Tully Hall concert. That 1976 recital pretty much set the course for the rest of my life. They offered a brilliant survey of American popular song, spanning the 100 years from the Civil War Days to songs that had just been written. Joan was somehow able to show us what the song used to be, what the song meant in a modern context, and—this was her genius—the eternal truth of the song. How she accomplished this three-tiered performance is a mystery. It was her own unique mix of ironic distance and total investment, naiveté layered on top of professional command, that lifted her art to the heavens. (And that remains true of Joanie.)

Bill has a Rabelaisian appetite for music of all kinds, and an ecumenical respect for an astonishing range of genres. For many people, Leonard Bernstein was their sainted pathfinder. Lenny was very important in my life too. Early exposure to the “Young People’s Concerts” awakened me to music’s subtleties and possibilities. But Bolcom was my real role model: a powerful collaborative pianist, an equal opportunity composer (12-tone, tango, neo-classical, ragtime), a truth-teller. Shambling and sharp, gentle and demanding, an inspiring study in contrasts.

I am especially excited to be revisiting Bolcom’s Lorca songs, this time with tenor Matthew Pearce and guitarist Jack Guglielmetti. The combination of the great Spanish poet (one of my favorites), the modes and rhythms of Spanish and Caribbean music, and the chaotic brilliance of William Bolcom make for pure musical combustion.

Here’s “Soneto de la dulce queja,” in a recording by tenor René Barbera, with Carl St. Clair conducting.

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