After performances of his First Symphony, written to express anger and grief over the AIDS crisis, John Corigliano is used to deeply personal responses.
"It's been overwhelming to both the orchestras and the audience," Corigliano said on the phone from his home in New York. "Each performance it's had, in every city, the orchestra sends me letters.
"And I received a tape from a woman who heard the piece, whose son and daughter-in-law and their children have AIDS, of such sadness . . . I've heard the most horrible stories in the world.
"Even people who are not touched by this tragedy have been touched by this piece, they've told me."
The work will receive its Southern California premiere performances today and Thursday, by the Pacific Symphony led by Catherine Comet at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.
Premiered on March 15, 1990, by the Chicago Symphony (which commissioned it), the symphony won the 1991 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition (a $150,000 prize) and was a serious contender for the Pulitzer Prize in Music earlier this year (the Pulitzer went to Shulamit Ran's Symphony instead).
"I never was going to write a symphony," said Corigliano, 53, between rehearsals for his opera "The Ghost of Versailles" which will premiere Thursday at the Metropolitan.
"I never felt I had a subject or a (musical) thought that had the intensity and grandeur for a symphony. I also felt there were such great symphonies already that no one needed a symphony by me.
"But I felt they did need a symphony for this."
He felt capable of writing it, he said, "not because of my composing experience but, unfortunately, because of my deep association with the disease."
How many people does he know who have been afflicted?
"I stopped counting at 100."
Corigliano recalled that "in every way, emotionally, the piece was very difficult.
"A (pianist) friend was dying. I couldn't tell him what the piece was about." Though he wasn't scheduled to play the piece, he came to every rehearsal for the premiere.
"When he walked into rehearsal, the musicians--who had had no real association with him because he had isolated himself for two years--saw this little old man, and a lot of them couldn't play, they were so upset. The piece is dedicated to him."
(The pianist was Sheldon Shkolnic, a lifelong friend who had given the Chicago premiere of Corigliano's Piano Concerto. Shkolnic died five days after the symphony was performed in Chicago, according to Corigliano's New York representative.)
Although the symphony is deeply personal, Corigliano wants it to be heard as a work of art, not just as a cry from the heart.
"That's the problem in the Romantic view of a composer," he said. According to that view, "a composer gets tortured and gets wrapped up with feelings and one day he writes the symphony. But it took two years! I worked real hard. It was not just a breast-beating about my friends who died."
Corigliano said the two-year process is "not unusual" for him. "I'm a slow composer. Part of that time, there wasn't even any music. I architect my music first. . . .
"I build the piece without the music and then find the music for the architecture. Sometimes I do it by drawing pictures or typing things out. It's a combination of emotion and architectural peaks and valleys. . . .
"I wrote my emotional needs as part of the architecture, which then gave them substance. That doesn't mean my music doesn't have expression. It means that the expressive moments are wedded to the architecture, in order to be real in abstract music."
People, Corigliano said, may not realize that structure is so much a part of art but in fact "all composers are architects" (see accompanying story).
"You would really think it foolish if someone building a building began by putting a brick down and then put another one on top of that, and so on. So why would a composer take a note and then a note and then another, not knowing what he was going to write?
"A sculptor wouldn't do it. Would a mystery writer write a mystery story without a plot? (Yet) people expect composers to write a piece not knowing where they're going or what is going to happen."
Still, for all the formal elements of his piece, Corigliano is well aware of its emotional impact.
"Although it's an AIDS piece," he said, "it can reach an audience who would never go to see an AIDS play, wouldn't go to see the Quilt or 'Longtime Companion' either because of lack of interest or hostility. . . ."
Why? "Because it's not verbal; it's not preached to them, so they can accept the message. The word AIDS is not mentioned. There are no words. So they can get the emotional message without the verbal rhetoric that could upset them. In that sense, it's a political piece."
* Catherine Comet will conduct the Pacific Symphony in John Corigliano's First Symphony, Brahms' "Variations on a Theme of Haydn" and Joaquin Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez" with guitar soloist Christopher Parkening today and Thursday at 8 p.m. at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Part of the proceeds from Thursday's concert will benefit AIDS Walk Orange County. Tickets: $12 to $50. Information: (714) 556-2787.