It’s not often that one gets a chance to hear a large-scale contemporary work twice — most of the time you’re lucky to hear it once. (Balmer Symphony, if you don’t encore James Lee III’s Harriet Tubman piece next season, you’re missing out.) So when the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra‘s Thursday concert at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center presented the opportunity to deepen my knowledge of John Corigliano’s Symphony no. 3 for band, “Circus Maximus,” I jumped at the chance.
The last time I heard “Circus Maximus” was five years ago, when the Marine Band played it under Leonard Slatkin at Strathmore, and I felt steamrolled by something large whose outlines were forbidding and whose insides were murky. I wanted to see whether the murkiness was due to lack of familiarity or lack of clarity in the music. Thankfully, “Circus Maximus” sounds better the better you get to know it.
Corigliano has various band members spread out through whatever coliseum in which the symphony is being played, surrounding the audience in an experience even the finest 7.1-channel sound cannot duplicate at home (another reason to cherish live performances of the work). The band spends much of that time playing very loud, creating a solid wall of sound that seals you in. A recurring motif of horns whooping, with drums banging implacably behind them, sounds like a call to attention and a judgment at once. At one point, musicians march down the aisles, bringing the noise to wherever you are. You get the idea: This is a work that’s coming at you.
A bunch of students playing in the warm acoustic of the Dekelboum Concert Hall is not going to make the same amount of noise the President’s Own can in the super-live acoustic of the Music Center at Strathmore, and indeed I was able to hear myself think during this performance, which five years ago sometimes was a struggle. But the UMWO met the challenges Corigliano poses from a logistical perspective — just coordinating all these musicians scattered about the hall demands a lot of effort both from the players and the conductor. Michael Votta, Jr., the music director of the wind orchestra, had one white glove on his left hand just like another famous Michael, but he used the glove so that his finger-cues would be more readily visible in the rafters, and it seemed to work: almost all the time, the disorder in the hall was purposeful, and not an artifact of disordered playing.
In his introductory remarks, Votta also did a good job explaining the symphony, giving a concise hook for each of its movements that the audience could keep in mind as it listened. For example, Votta spotlit the “Night Music I” movement’s evocations of nature, and in the UMWO’s performance you could indeed hear the distant howls of wolves and the noises of other beasts and fowl over a constant quiet nocturnal murmur. “Night Music I” gradually segues into “Night Music II,” a urban scene with nightlife of a different sort, and it was extremely canny of the UMWO to project the changing movement titles on a large screen above the stage so no one in the audience had to wonder which movement we were in. Votta also correctly pointed out that the penultimate “Prayer” movement is full of hymn-like sounds and melodies full of hope, which the UMWO winds and brass threw themselves into just as they had earlier thrown themselves into battering the audience. The subtleties of the work, in other words, did not escape the UMWO any more than the non-subtleties did. I came away from the performance both impressed with Votta and the UMWO and wanting to hear “Circus Maximus” yet again. Let’s make it happen!
The UMWO deserves credit for choosing, as a concert opener, the maximum possible contrast to the Corigliano: Johannes Brahms’ sunny, sedate Serenade no. 2, for low strings, winds, and brass. Votta made sure the rhythms didn’t drag and the melodies unspooled gracefully, and after some initial infelicities (including two flutes playing a powerfully dissonant unison) the orchestra and its guest strings made pleasing noises. First among the frequent soloists was oboist Emily Tsai, who had a consistently lovely tone and took her melodic twists and turns with stylish assurance, but the whole thing was just the ticket to lull you into a satisfying complacence before the punch of the Corigliano after intermission.