Review: The Searing Power of an AIDS Symphony

Review: The Searing Power of an AIDS Symphony


During the late 1980s, as the AIDS epidemic became worse and worse, with no end in sight, the composer John Corigliano did not shy away from responding to something so immense and horrific. When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra offered him a commission, he wrote a raw, seething symphony of rage and remembrance for friends who had died.

[Read about what inspired this symphony.]

From its first performance, in 1990, Mr. Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 brought catharsis and comfort to many listeners, and acclaim to its composer. It also stirred pushback from some critics who found the music too blatant: How many episodes of pummeling percussion, gnashing chords, screeching brass and sorrowfully wafting string melodies can one piece contain?

I used to share those reservations. But I hadn’t heard the work in a long while before Thursday, when Jaap van Zweden led the New York Philharmonic in a formidable performance at David Geffen Hall, part of the orchestra’s season-ending “Music of Conscience” series.

[Hear music nearly lost to the AIDS crisis.]

Maybe some distance — the Philharmonic hadn’t performed it since 1992 — helped put the sincerity and intensity of the music, as well as Mr. Corigliano’s impressive technical skills, in perspective. I was engrossed.

The symphony fares best in live performance. On Thursday, the Philharmonic, with boosted ranks to accommodate a work scored for huge orchestral forces, held back nothing during din-like outbursts, yet also summoned shimmering sonorities during tender passages. The music seemed like an in-the-moment response to tragic loss.

The first movement, which reflects Mr. Corigliano’s anguish over the death of a pianist friend, begins with a nasal-twanged, persistent note that drives itself into your head, until slashing percussion and steely brass bludgeon it, if only for a moment. The movement then teeters between infuriated episodes and nostalgic passages, during which an offstage pianist plays bits of an Albéniz tango that Mr. Corigliano’s friend loved.

The second movement is based on a tarantella that Mr. Corigliano had written earlier for another friend, a record producer and amateur pianist. Here the dance keeps drifting into madness, where lilting rhythms turn frenzied and chords become distorted, as the music tries to depict AIDS dementia, often a last stage of the illness. During affecting stretches of the final movement, a forlorn melody is first played by a solo cello (here the superb Carter Brey) against streams of sound that become like undulant sonic waves — sometimes lulling, other times threatening.

The program began with a dark, majestic account of Brahms’s “Tragic” Overture. Then the thoughtful pianist David Fray was an elegant soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor. If Brahms and Mozart seem preoccupied with troubling thoughts in these two works, neither piece quite fit with the “Music of Conscience” theme. No matter. Mr. Corigliano’s symphony did the heavy lifting on this night.

New York Philharmonic

This program repeats on Saturday at David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center; 212-875-5656,

Anthony Tommasini is the chief classical music critic. He writes about orchestras, opera and diverse styles of contemporary music, and he reports regularly from major international festivals. A pianist, he holds a Doctorate of Musical Arts from Boston University. @TommasiniNYT

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