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Circus Maximus

The UT Wind Ensemble's premiere of John Corigliano's Circus Maximus' was more than a concert; it was an event

Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Feb. 25, 2005

Arts Review

Circus Maximus

Bass Concert Hall, Feb. 16

It isn't every night that one sees a composer at a concert of (for lack of a better term) classical music besieged by fans seeking his autograph. But it isn't every night that an ensemble at the University of Texas offers the world premiere of a symphony – a symphony which the school itself commissioned – by one of the pre-eminent composers of our age. The UT Wind Ensemble's premiere of John Corigliano's Circus Maximus was more than a concert; it was an event, and the autograph seekers, the exceptionally loud buzz in the hall, the longest line at the Bass box office that I've seen in 20 years all testified that Austin had caught the sense of moment in the air.

Launching the evening was Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks, which gave a fitting sense of pomp and ceremony to this auspicious occasion, with dignified reeds leading us on a sometimes brisk, often stately promenade through a neatly landscaped English garden. Then came an abrupt about-face, a loose, sensuous spin across the dance floor via Baron Cimetière's Mambo. Conducted playfully by the Longhorn Band's Robert Carnochan, this new work by Austin's Donald Grantham whirled us into a splashy world of reckless abandon, the frisky brass in the lead, flirtatiously bouncing hither and yon. Sobriety returned with Aaron Copland's Emblems, a work from 1964 and full of long, dissonant chords like storm clouds over the heartland. This was the same voice of America heard in Appalachian Spring and Billy the Kid, still lyrical, still reverent, but also disturbed, brooding, perhaps over the escalating civil rights struggle or the young Americans dying in greater numbers in Southeast Asia or the recent gunning down of the president on the streets of Dallas. In just seven minutes, the mighty Copland captured the spirit of the nation in that moment – the darkened idealism, the fraying unity, the wounded majesty – and provided a prelude to the conflicts of the coming decade.

As it turned out, the program's three pieces made apt lead-ins to the Corigliano world premiere. The kinds of music they featured, the contrasting moods, the tension, the fractured sensibility, all figured heavily in Circus Maximus. This was a work that swelled to a deafening roar then faded to a whisper; that encompassed sinuous jazz, martial fanfares, circus music, hunting calls, and more, at times with one type of music interrupting another; that swung dramatically from apocalyptic chaos to pastoral serenity to urban turmoil to farce, each mood pushing or pulling against the next. It was a symphonic portrait of a world of extremes, of fragments competing for primacy, of a barrage of eclectic elements assaulting the senses.

The work came at you from all directions – quite literally, as pockets of the ensemble were stationed all about the hall: down the aisles, in the balconies, even moving from one side of the hall to the next. The sense of being surrounded, of being at the center of the monumental arena of the title, was alternately enticing and intimidating. A lone muted trumpet from the rear of the hall felt like a tickle at the edge of your brain, but the whole host of trumpets, sounding off at once in staggered blasts like elephants on the rampage, stabbed at your ears like ice picks.

The violence of the piece was deliberate, a brutal but potent evocation of our time with its overwhelming assaults that we're witness to every day, in the media if not in person. That's not to say it was without beauty. Corigliano wisely included passages of peace and reflection, moments that summoned the tranquility of deep night in the country, where nature still reigns, and of human prayer. Still, these passages functioned as respites from the turbulence in which we're immersed 24/7, the rare occasions when we're able to escape the competing pressures of contemporary life. What was most powerful and extraordinary about Circus Maximus was the way it reflected those pressures and the character of our culture – the violence, the pride, the impatience, the disconnectedness, the sense of menace and of mourning – to a degree that was unnerving. Jerry Junkin, whose conducting infused the work with another level of dramatic power, was able to lead the Wind Ensemble to deliver this image of our time in astounding fashion.

As the echoes of a shotgun blast, the work's final sound, faded into the night, the crowd responded in a manner befitting this event: five minutes of sustained applause and four curtain calls. A momentous end to a momentous night.

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