John Corigliano’s “Voyage”: Sailing into a World of Obsessive Imagination

Regarding the dreamy and sensuous Voyage for Flute and String Orchestra, the American composer John Corigliano (b. 1938) writes, Voyage for flute and string orchestra (1983) is an instrumental version of a 1971 a cappella choral work that was a setting of Richard Wilbur’s translation of Baudelaire’s famous L’Invitation au voyage. Wilbur’s poignant setting pictures a world of obsessive imagination — a drugged version of heaven full of sensual imagery. The music echoes the …

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Stravinsky’s “Orpheus”: Melancholy, Love, and Mystery

“Myths never were, but always are,” wrote the 4th century Roman commentator, Sallustius. So it is with the story of Orpheus, which inspired Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine in mid-twentieth century Hollywood as deeply as it did Claudio Monteverdi in 1607 and the lyric poet Ibycus in the 6th century BC. In 1946, Stravinsky received a commission from Balanchine and the impresario, Lincoln Kirstein, for a contemporary treatment of the Orpheus story. The resulting …

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Hovhaness’ Symphony No. 6, “Celestial Gate”: Entering a New Dimension

Alan Hovhaness’ Symphony No. 6, “Celestial Gate” is modest by some measures. The work, composed in 1959, is scored for a chamber orchestra. It unfolds in a single movement which lasts just over twenty minutes. Yet once we move beyond this finite formal “container,” we enter a musical space which feels infinitely vast and timeless. Perhaps this is the serene, mystical, and ambient world on the other side of the “Celestial Gate” of …

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Ligeti’s Etude No. 5, “Arc-en-ciel,” Khatia Buniatishvili

György Ligeti composed a cycle of 18 solo piano études between 1985 and 2001. Étude No. 5 from Book 1 is titled Arc-en-ciel, or “rainbow.” Its lines rise and fall in glistening, ephemeral arches of color and light, and ultimately evaporate. Ligeti provides the additional marking, Andante con eleganza, with swing. Ligeti, who has acknowledged the influence of Thelonius Monk and Bill Evans once called Arc-en-ciel “almost a jazz piece.” The hazy, magical vocabulary of jazz …

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Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto: A Colossus Reborn

Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor rise ups before the listener as a formidable colossus. The work is scored for an enormous orchestra which includes three trombones, tuba, and an array of percussion instruments. It is set in four movements rather than the traditional three. At moments, the piano seems to be pushed to the edge of its limits and consumed by a blazing, raw power. For the soloist, the Concerto’s technical …

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Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto: Written for Mstislav Rostropovich

In 1943, the 16-year-old Mstislav Rostropovich was in Dmitri Shostakovich’s orchestration class at the Moscow Conservatory. When Shostakovich heard the young cellist play, he was overcome with praise, commenting on the “the intense, restless mind and the high spirituality that he brings to his mastery.” Later, he wrote, Mstislav Rostropovich, never resting, always searching and growing—is of such significance that it seems already possible to claim his name will come to be given …

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Debussy’s “Rêverie,” Zoltán Kocsis

Rêverie (“daydream”) is music of the young Claude Debussy. Written in 1890, this atmospheric piece for solo piano anticipates the composer’s later works. At the same time, I hear a fleeting echo (perhaps coincidental) of Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Swan. As with Saint-Saëns, who downplayed his 1886 Carnival of the Animals suite as frivolity, Debussy later turned his back on Rêverie, writing to the publisher Fromont, I regret very much your decision to publish Rêverie. I wrote it in a …

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