A year after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the New York Philharmonic asked John Corigliano – possibly the most accessible of musical modernists and certainly the most celebrated – to write a commemorative piece. The composer, however, felt that he was too close to the tragic event; the assignment went instead to John Adams.
Time seems to have mellowed Corigliano’s perspective, just as it has made his sonic language more abrasive. On Friday night, the orchestra presented the world premiere of One Sweet Morning, a tough, brave and elegiac song cycle marking the 10th anniversary of the disaster, now known simply as 9/11.
Corigliano scored the work for a gutsy mezzo-soprano soloist and a big brassy-percussive orchestra. Lasting just under a half-hour, One Sweet Morning makes telling use of drastically disparate texts: a chilling faux-serene poem from Warsaw by Czeslaw Milosz written in 1944, a brutal extract from Homer’s Iliad, a cry of anguish from eighth-century China by Li Po, and, finally, a recycling of a relatively folksy benediction by “Yip” Harburg, the lyricist best known for his Broadway and Hollywood ventures.
Contrary to possible expectation, Corigliano wraps the diverse sentiments in compact orchestral fabrics, favouring dissonance over harmonic clarity, meandering Sprechgesang over melodic stability. His worthy intentions, unfortunately, are not invariably matched with lofty achievements. Much of One Sweet Morning sounds merely dense rather than tense. Cataclysms lose impact with repetition. The bright resolution emerges dark, a bit muddled and, yes, a bit forced.
Stephanie Blythe sang the wide-ranging solos with inevitably lush tone and tireless power. Alan Gilbert and the Philharmonic provided a brash, virtuosic frame. Still, the lines that separate the grand from the grandiose, the portentous from the pretentious, were oddly and sadly blurred.
The concert began with a somewhat ponderous account of Barber’s Essay No. 1 and ended with a fast and fiery, sometimes untidy, performance of Dvorák’s sprawling Seventh Symphony. Corigliano’s apostrophe to war, peace and misery had, one suspects, taken its toll on rehearsal time.