* Mr. Tambourine Man: 7 Poems of Bob Dylan (2003)
* 3 Hallucinations (from Altered States; 1981)
Hila Plitmann (amplified soprano)
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
Naxos 8.559331 Total time: 52:21
Summary for the Busy Executive: With a couple of exceptions, merely okay.
Current pop music sounds nothing like that of sixty years ago. The
jazz-based song that inspired Berlin, Gershwin, Arlen, and Duke has
mostly died out. The new pop song sounds nothing like it, thanks to R&B
and Bob Dylan, among other things. Dylan changed mainly pop-lyric writing
with a blend of folk ballad, the Beats, and the Bible, and he created
several generations of superior songwriters: the Beatles, the Stones,
Joni Mitchell, Warren Zevon, Van Dyke Parks, all the way to Sheryl Crow
and Gillian Welch. Where a superior lyricist like Ira Gershwin would
joke that any connection between his lyrics and genuine poetry was purely
coincidental, all of the post-Dylan writers consciously strove to write
poetry. I don't judge their success, but simply describe an attitude.
American composer John Corigliano makes the (frankly incredible) claim
that he had never heard Dylan's music before, primarily because folk
music didn't interest him. Dylan was until recently terra ignota to
him. The soprano Sylvia McNair commissioned a song cycle from Corigliano,
and he needed texts. A friend suggested Bob Dylan. Rather than listen
to the songs -- so he could avoid the musical influence -- Corigliano
simply looked at the lyrics as he would any other poetry and chose seven
Dylan texts, some well-known, others not: Mr. Tambourine Man, Clothes
Line, Blowin' in the Wind, Masters of War, All Along the Watchtower,
Chimes of Freedom, and Forever Young. He set the lyrics as he would set
any lyric, and that becomes problematic. Dylan is a faux primitif.
Urban, Beat imagery deriving, I suppose, ultimately from Rimbaud mingles
with folksy diction. However, Dylan's folk-based musical idioms bridge
the gap. Corigliano's high-Modern style does not. The effect is a
little like hearing Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" declaimed by Margaret
Dumont. Furthermore, I can't find one memorable song in the set. Unlike
Bernstein and Rorem, Corigliano's not an especially gifted melodist.
Many of these songs exhibit a great amount of skill -- I think especially
of the chorus of "Mr. Tambourine Man" -- but not a lot of imagination.
The gestures come across as second-hand. I except "Clothes Line," notable
for a skillful portrayal of a disturbing psychological current beneath
a simple narrative, and "Forever Young," which, if not memorable, still
is beautiful. I don't think it coincidental that both songs work the
vein of Copland pastoral. It also interested me how similar at points
-- on a very abstract level, of course -- Corigliano's settings were to
Dylan's. For example, in "Chimes of Freedom," both composers use a
similar rhetorical movement at the recurring line, "An' we gazed upon
the chimes of freedom flashin'." Corigliano has linked the songs together
ingeniously, but, again, most of the songs themselves don't reward the
kind of listening it takes to ferret out the connections.
Corigliano has also had a small, though successful career (in the sense
that he keeps getting jobs) in film music. Three Hallucinations comes
from music to the Ken Russell film Altered States. The movie (about a
scientist who takes hallucinogens to discover spirituality) has dated
badly, its silliness even more howlingly apparent than at its first
release. I remember, however, Corigliano's music as quite effective in
context. In concert, it mostly just lies there, with Corigliano giving
free rein to his worst habits -- moony, miasmal aural hazes that go
absolutely nowhere, ersatz-Ivesian bubbling stews without any of Ives's
interest. The best music is the fast music, probably because Corigliano
actually had to think of all those notes and their relation to one
another. He couldn't simply switch onto automatic. Unfortunately, most
of the piece is slow, slow, slow.
Of the performers, Hila Plitmann stands out. She lends the songs a
distinction most of them don't deserve. Corigliano originally wrote the
songs for voice and piano. When he came to orchestrate it, rather than
think about an economic orchestration, he specified a miked or "amplified"
soprano, simply so she wouldn't have to shout or scream above his
kitchen-sink orchestra. Falletta and the Buffalo Phil do the best they
can with what the composer gives them, and Falletta really makes an
effort to provide Plitmann with sensitive support. The sound is fine,
if not spectacular.
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