Circus Maximus

A few days ago, AEJ and I stopped by John Corigliano’s apartment to give him his Christmas present. We were planning to leave it with the doorman, expecting John to be out of town for the holidays, but he was there, so we got to deliver the gift in person.

When we entered his studio, we saw the score for his new wind ensemble piece, “Circus Maximus.” I told him that I’d heard great things about the piece during the Midwest convention in Chicago the week before, and John offered to play the recording of the first few movements for us. AEJ and I were mad excited.

Okay, so I’m pretty new to wind ensemble repertoire — I’ll admit that right now. But “Circus Maximus” is, without question, the most important piece of music to hit the repertoire during my conscious lifetime. Corigliano has not written “Corigliano does Band.” This is pure, 100% Corigliano. It sounds like Corigliano, it looks like Corigliano on paper (lots of aleatoric music, etc.), it’s theatrical, ballsy, ingeniously structured, funny, loud, terrifying, and simply brilliant.

And it sounds like really, really loud orchestra music.

Even fans of “band” music have to admit that a lot of band music sounds like band music. Not so here. This piece sounds like it’s an orchestra piece that just has no need for strings.

Within 3 minutes, Abby and I both thought, “Is this piece going to win him another Pulitzer?”

We only heard a reading of the first three movements. I believe there are 5 total, but the UT wind ensemble was simply reading the piece on the recording (sight reading?! good lord, they’re astonishing), and John said it got rougher as it went on (it’s 40 minutes long), so he only played us the first part. Also, the piece is written with true “surround sound,” so there are instruments — lots of them — spread all around the hall. This wasn’t obvious on the 2-channel CD, of course, but by following the score, it was clear that this piece was going to be another 1000% better in person. When Corigliano nails something, there’s nothing better, and man, he totally nailed “Circus Maximus.”

Wow, I’m excited to hear the premiere at Carnegie Hall in February


Greg Blackford says

I just listened to the premiere of Circus Maximus in Bass Concert hall here on the UT campus! It was by far the most incredible music performance I have ever heard/seen! No music has ever given me chills as frequent as this piece did and no music has ever pulled me into it so effortlessly as this piece did. I can assure you that the rest of his work (7 movements total) is brilliant!

Howard Lee Harkness says

Last weekend, I got what turned out to be the strangest gig I have ever landed. I was chosen to be a soloist for a recording session with the University of Texas Wind Ensemble. The piece was the Finale to "Circus Maximus" by John Corigliano.

My solo? I 'played' the very last 'note' in the piece...on a shotgun.

Specifically, a Mossberg Model 88 12-gauge, firing a 6DRM Equivalent (full-charge blackpowder) blank. The guy who hired me for this gig found me on the internet, looking for firearms instructors.

When I got to the place where the recording was being done (a huge Methodist church in southwest Plano), I saw with some dismay that the hall was not quite as big as I had hoped. Earlier that afternoon, I had test-fired a blank at the range, and determined that it was nearly twice as loud as a standard buckshot round. Even with earplugs and over-the-ear muffs, it was uncomfortably loud. When I got to the hall, I went up to the conductor, and asked him if he was familiar with how loud a shotgun was, and he replied that his group had performed the piece once already. I warned him that everyone in the hall who wasn't wearing hearing protection would experience pain. He chuckled, and assured me it wasn't all that bad. (The first performance had been in Carnegie Hall, which is about twice the size of the auditorium we were in.)

Well, we went through the piece, he gave me my cue, and I fired. After about 15 seconds of watching the conductor (Dr. Junkins) standing there like somebody had just suckerpunched him, I quipped, "Was that loud enough?" That got a chuckle from the band. Then they gave me a spontaneous ovation. It was hilarious. Rolling-on-the-floor, sides-in-pain, tears-streaming-down-the-cheeks hilarious.

We ran through it again the next day, only this time, when Dr. Junkins announced the Finale, the (very cute) 1st-desk oboist ran out to where she had left her purse, and pulled out a jar of earplugs, and passed them around. Everyone got a pair, and inserted them, including the conductor.

Made believers out them, I did.

Turned out the recording engineers could not adjust things so that you could actually hear the rest of the piece without seriously overloading the preamps during the shotgun 'note', so they had me record my 'solo' several times by myself -- with nobody else in the room. After about 6 rounds, they found enough faders to put in that they could record the shotgun without overloading. So they will mix that in later.

The recording should be out around Christmas or so, and they assured me that my name will be in the album liner. Not only that, but they mentioned that I might get to perform live with the Dallas Wind Symphony this Fall at the Morton H. Meyerson hall.

Oh, I should mention that the composer was at the recording session, and I actually had a fairly lengthy conversation with him. I was looking over the score, and I quipped, "Oh, I see the problem! There are only 4 f's on my part, and I was playing 12!" (The guy who hired me for the gig had no idea that I was actually a musician.) He (John Corigliano) laughed, and we chatted about the piece, the first performance, and the general difficulties involved in recording it. Then one of the engineers walked in and addressed him by name, which is when I realized who he was.

All in all, a great time was had by all. You could say we had a real blast!

GD&R.... :lol:

Anonymous says

The University of Michigan Symphony Band is performing Circus Maximus on Feb. 3...John Corigliano will be in attendance...

Chris says

I had the opportunity to hear Circus Maximus at Midwest this year and I have to say that it is probably the greatest piece of art music composed for the "band" medium since Hindemith's symphony. This is the kind of piece that our profession has been wanting for a long time, a serious statement from someone who has something to say that's worth listening to. Corigliano delivered like Junkin knew he would. I sure hope this work of art wins him a Pulitzer.

Andy says

The University of Colorado Wind symphony performed this piece just tonight in conjunction with the Colorado Wind Ensemble in Macky auditorium. It is definitely one of the best pieces written for wind band that i have ever heard. The audience gave a standing ovation for at least five minutes after the conclusion of the piece. Definitely a night to remember for a long time to come.

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