Checking In With Composer John Corigliano As He Turns 80 : Deceptive Cadence With a Pulitzer, an Oscar, five Grammys and over 100 works to his credit, the American composer is still hard at work.
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John Corigliano On Composing At 80: 'An Adagio Is What I Look For'

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John Corigliano On Composing At 80: 'An Adagio Is What I Look For'

John Corigliano On Composing At 80: 'An Adagio Is What I Look For'

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

John Corigliano is one of today's most acclaimed American composers. He's won a Pulitzer, an Oscar and five Grammys. He's also just turned 80, and he's still hard at work, as Naomi Lewin reports.

NAOMI LEWIN, BYLINE: John Corigliano grew up with stage fright. His father, John Corigliano Sr., was a violinist who spent 26 years as concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic. The composer remembers listening to his father practice feverishly before a performance.

JOHN CORIGLIANO: And then go to the Philharmonic when he played solo and sit in the green room because I was too nervous that he might make mistakes because I knew every note of the piece. And I hear the concert on the speaker, hunched over. And when the difficult spots were coming, I would hunch further.

LEWIN: His anxiety didn't go away as he got older.

CORIGLIANO: For many years, for, like, 20 years of my own composing life, I wouldn't be in the hall for the concert. I would be backstage or outside the hall. I just couldn't stand listening to my own piece.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN CORIGLIANO'S "SONATA FOR VIOLIN AND PIANO")

LEWIN: Corigliano's mother was also a musician, and his parents were convinced he'd never make it as a composer. So they did all they could to stop him. When he wrote a violin sonata for his father, Corigliano Sr. refused to play it until it won a prestigious competition.

CORIGLIANO: And then my father had to take it out of the closet where he put it because he didn't want to see any of my music and practice it and give it the New York premiere. And he loved it. He played it for the rest of his life.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN CORIGLIANO'S "SONATA FOR VIOLIN AND PIANO")

JUSTIN DAVIDSON: His best music, like the best music in any style, is immediate. It's urgent.

LEWIN: Justin Davidson is classical music critic for New York magazine.

DAVIDSON: People respond to it with a kind of physicality. It's got a visceral ability to connect.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN CORIGLIANO'S "CONCERTO FOR CLARINET AND ORCHESTRA")

LEWIN: Film director Ken Russell felt that connection. After hearing Corigliano's clarinet concerto, he invited the composer to step out of the concert hall and into a Hollywood studio to write the score for the sci-fi horror film Russell was shooting, "Altered States."

CORIGLIANO: He wanted me to be wild, so I experimented with a lot. I learned a lot. There, I had this incredibly good orchestra. These orchestras there are some of the best in the world. And I was able to do anything.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN CORIGLIANO'S "HALLUCINATION")

LEWIN: Not all members of the orchestra were pleased with his experiments.

LEONARD SLATKIN: The first cellist on that score was my mother, who berated him right and left.

LEWIN: But conductor Leonard Slatkin became a champion of Corigliano's work and programs it often.

SLATKIN: John is not afraid to use many styles in his writing. He also is a colorist. He's able to use whatever instruments and vocal forces he has at hand to create new sound worlds.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN CORIGLIANO'S "SYMPHONY NO. 1")

LEWIN: Slatkin conducted a Grammy-winning recording of Corigliano's First Symphony, the composer's response to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.

CORIGLIANO: That was a very painful piece to write. I was composing a piece because my best friend, Sheldon Shkolnik, a pianist who lived in Chicago, was diagnosed with pneumocystis pneumonia. That meant he had AIDS, and that meant in those days that he was going to die within two years. And he did. I realized I had lost so many friends to this horrible, horrible plague that I had over a hundred people in my address book that died.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN CORIGLIANO'S "SYMPHONY NO. 1")

LEWIN: Even as Corigliano was pouring out his "Rage And Remembrance," the title of the symphony's first movement, he was putting the finishing touches on something completely different, his comic opera, "The Ghosts Of Versailles."

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE GHOSTS OF VERSAILLES")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (As Figaro) Oh, no. Here we go again.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (As characters) Stop.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (As Muscovite Traders) You owe me money. Stop.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #3: (As Old Man on Ladder) You thief. You stole my daughter.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #4: (As Other Man in Room) My wife.

LEWIN: Corigliano went on to win the 1999 Academy Award for his score to the movie "The Red Violin."

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN CORIGLIANO'S "CREMONA")

LEWIN: Corigliano's music can't be pigeonholed. He's written a song cycle on Bob Dylan's lyrics. He's currently working on a saxophone concerto and another opera with a libretto by his husband Mark Adamo. At 80, Corigliano still loves to compose. It just takes a little longer.

CORIGLIANO: When I was writing my early pieces, composing was such a nerve-racking thing to do. It still is. It made me so nervous that I was kind of very hyper. And I could never write those pieces now. First of all, I'm too old to write that fast. Now the whole note is my friend. An adagio is what I look for. And when I have to write a fast movement, I say, oh, my God. What am I going to do here?

LEWIN: The anxiety may still be there, but John Corigliano has managed to prove his parents wrong. For NPR News, I'm Naomi Lewin.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE LOUISVILLE ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF JOHN CORIGLIANO'S "PROMENADE OVERTURE")

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