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Song Cycle Places One Indelible Day Along History's Bleak Continuum
Anthony Tommasini | The New York Times | 2 October 2011

In a free preseason concert last month to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks Alan Gilbert conducted the New York Philharmonic in Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony at Avery Fisher Hall, with the performance relayed to Lincoln Center Plaza. That great, tumultuous and, finally, exhilarating work was a fitting choice for the solemn occasion.

The Philharmonic also wanted to commission a new work for the anniversary. The composer John Corigliano took on that project. As he explained in a recent interview with The New York Times, deciding what would be appropriate was a challenge.

His new work, "One Sweet Morning," a 30-minute song cycle for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, had its premiere on Friday night, with the magnificent Stephanie Blythe as soloist and Mr. Gilbert conducting a colorful and intense performance in a program that included works by Barber and Dvorak. With a viscerally emotional score "One Sweet Morning" shifts in mood from ruminative to bellicose, from mystical to wrenching. Mr. Corigliano has long drawn from diverse styles to fashion his musical voice. Those who find the Romantic elements of his music excessive, as I sometimes do, may be put off by this work's cinematic stretches. But the skill and vision at play are impressive. And Ms. Blythe was in her glory.

In that interview Mr. Corigliano said that a decade after the horrific events, "we have a chance to look back at 9/11 and then to look back further, to see how it fits into the drama of all the world's wars, all the world's battles, all the world's horrible mistreatments of people." That may sound like a dangerously sweeping agenda for a song cycle. But with his inspired choice of texts Mr. Corigliano found poignantly specific ways to place Sept. 11 in context.

The first is "A Song on the End of the World" by Czeslaw Milosz (translated into English by his son Anthony Milosz), written in Warsaw in 1944, a poem that presents a scene of seeming calm and everyday affairs, with images of a sleepy drunkard at the edge of a lawn, vegetable peddlers in the street, women walking through fields under umbrellas. Even those who expect signs that the end of the world will come amid "archangels' trumps," in the words of the text, do not believe "it is happening now."

Mr. Corigliano sets the words to music of shimmering tranquillity pierced with unsettling orchestral details. The mezzo-soprano's first lines ("On the day the world ends/A bee circles a clover,") are sung in subdued, observant tones, enshrouded by glowing, pungent orchestral harmonies that lend nervous perplexity to the contemplative mood.

Brass chorales at the end of the song evolve into a gnarly orchestral transition into the second text, "Patroclus," an excerpt from Homer's "Iliad" (in Robert Fagles's translation). It relates in graphic detail the brutal individual deaths of Greek soldiers under the command of Patroclus. The music is fitful and dense, with militaristic brass flourishes and driving dotted-note rhythmic riffs.

Ms. Blythe, whose penetrating voice can usually cut through any orchestra, was sometimes covered by the blaring orchestral sound here. Still, making the voice just a part of the cataclysm seemed the intention.

Another roiling orchestral transition segues into the third text, "War South of the Great Wall," by the eighth-century Chinese poet Li Po (in David Hinton's translation), in which the narrator describes looking at her husband and sons in battle from a great distance, where "convulsions of men seem like armies of ants." Here the textures thin, and the music, while still raw, achieves the distance and space that Mr. Corigliano was after in the work as a whole.

The final section, based on a song for voice and piano that Mr. Corigliano wrote in 2005, gives the work its name, "One Sweet Morning." The words are by the Tin Pan Alley lyricist E. Y. Harburg. This tender, nostalgic text imagines that "out of the flags and the bones buried under the clover" peace will come. Here the vocal lines turn almost breezy. Yet the skittish orchestra, especially the piercing strings that almost cling to the voice, suggests otherwise.

After the two vocally taxing middle songs Ms. Blythe sounded a little tired in the final one. Still, she sang it with lyrical grace and touching directness. And she seemed deeply moved by the experience of singing this meaningful piece. Mr. Corigliano received a prolonged ovation when he appeared onstage.

Mr. Gilbert preceded Mr. Corigliano's work with a vibrant performance of Barber's Essay No. 1 for Orchestra, an eight-minute clear-textured and exuberant score written in 1937 and '38, when the composer was in his late 20s. The program ended with Dvorak's Symphony No. 7 in D minor, a dark and moody piece too seldom heard. Mr. Gilbert drew a glowing, lucid and stylish performance from the Philharmonic.

Advance ticket sales for this program were disappointing. To address that, but also as part of efforts to entice audiences, the Philharmonic had a special two-for-one offer on tickets. It seems to have helped: there was a decent turnout for the concert, with notable numbers of young people.