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April 11, 2000

Modern ComposersThe Red Violin, original motion picture soundtrack. Music composed by John Corigliano, with Joshua Bell, solo violin. Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor. (Sony Classical, CD # SK 63010) 1999.

If you watched last month's other March ritual, you may remember John Corigliano's acceptance speech for the Academy Award he received for his original score to Francois Girard's movie The Red Violin as a refreshing departure from the usual long long litany of thank- yous recited by the other award recipients. This is Corigliano's third movie score, and all three have been well received. His score for Altered States was nominated for an Academy Award in 1980, and the music for the film Revolution was the winner of the Anthony Asquith Award given by the British Film Institute.

Girard's movie tells the story of a violin from its creation in Cremona, Italy in 1681, through an eventful (for a violin) history spanning three centuries and three continents, and includes a band of Gypsies, an orphanage, some kinky hanky-panky with a British aristocrat, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and an up-scale Montreal auction house. Corigliano's challenge in writing a musical underscore for such a variety of settings was two-fold -- first, to reflect the passion of the stories, and second, to "reflect the musical growth and development of each [time] period." When Hollywood movies use classical music, it is usually a pastiche of well-known classical pieces, a sort of musical comfort food. That has been done effectively in lots of movies, but is a poor substitute for a well-written integral score. One of the criteria for a successful movie score is its ability to supplement and augment the action and/or mood of a scene without becoming a distracting presence. I confess that I have not seen the movie (though it is available on tape), and so cannot comment on the cinematic aspects of the score. Even to listeners who know nothing of the movie, however, the music stands on its own.

In addition to the music from the movie, the soundtrack album contains a concert work, a chaconne for violin and orchestra, based on the same themes used in the movie. Due to unexpected production delays, the chaconne was actually written first, and then themes from the concert work were used in the movie score, though the composer's original plan was to write the movie score first, then condense the film's major themes into a concert work. Corigliano explains that he "decided to use Anna's theme (the film's solo violin melody), manipulate it through stylistic variations, and adapt nineteenth-century techniques into the musical language of the twentieth century." (Anna is the wife of the violinmaker who creates the masterpiece as a present for his unborn child.)

Musically, the most interesting section of the film is the section involving a band of gypsies and an Austrian monastery. Perhaps the least satisfying segment of the film music is the section set in the 1965 Cultural Revolution. As a whole piece, the film score is a remarkable blend of subtlety and passion, as befits its function. The concert piece using many of the same themes is considerably less subtle and even more passionate, as befits its function. This album is a rare combination of film and concert music, both of which are worthwhile listening.

You can hear selections from The Red Violin soundtrack album on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, April 14 at 7:00 p.m. as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.

--J. Green

The Harbinger