The lyrics may be familiar, but the songs
are definitely not the same.
On May 22, when the Brooklyn Philharmonic plays the New York premiere of an orchestral song cycle by John Corigliano, "Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan," the melodies we’ve heard for decades are nowhere to be found.
Instead, Corigliano’s own music accompanies many of Dylan’s most famous lyrics.
In a recent interview with GO Brooklyn, Corigliano, 66, said he did not remember listening to those Dylan tunes back in the ’60s.
"Back then, the Beatles really caught my ear musically, but when I heard the Dylan songs afterwards, I realized that, even if I had heard them at the time, they wouldn’t have caught my ear," said Corigliano. "The music is simplistic and repetitious, but it supports marvelous lyrics. The actual songs of the Beatles were musically interesting, but Dylan put these great, poetic lyrics to a simple musical style."
"Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan" is a journey through seven Dylan lyrics that Corigliano wanted to adapt. "I looked through a book with all of his lyrics, and I narrowed it down to what [lyrics] I wanted to set and put them in a certain order to show a coming political awareness, in a way to find how the world really works," he explained.
The song cycle begins with "Mr. Tambourine Man," then moves through "Clothesline," "Blowin’ in the Wind," "Masters of War," "All Along the Watchtower" and "Chimes of Freedom," before ending with "Forever Young."
"The postlude [’Forever Young’] is a kind of benediction after all that comes before," said Corigliano, who maintained that the fact that several of the chosen songs are among Dylan’s greatest was sheer coincidence.
"I picked the ones for my own journey, because they were all obscure to me," he noted. "Most people who do know the songs find it very interesting to hear [this cycle]. Since they know the originals, it sounds like hearing two things at once, and it surprises them that both versions can exist."
This, of course, is not new in the classical music world, where many poems have been set to music by more than one composer.
"The point about art is its universality," said Corigliano. "Even if it was specifically about one thing, you can apply it to other things and it will still make sense. I wanted something that really speaks to us today."
Corigliano’s Dylan cycle was unveiled four years ago at Carnegie Hall as a work for soprano and piano accompaniment; Sylvia McNair sang the premiere. For the Brooklyn premiere of the orchestral cycle, Hila Plitmann will sing.
"The orchestra does change [the work] an awful lot," said Corigliano. "It was written for amplified soprano, since I don’t want Dylan’s words to sound operatic, and I don’t want the singer to try and project over the orchestra in a natural voice. You can sing more naturally when you’re amplified, since you don’t need to sing over the orchestra."
For his part, Corigliano, a Midwood High School alumnus, is excited that Plitmann is singing his work.
"She has this extraordinary gift for getting inside music, which very few people do," he said. "She brings something to the songs that’s unique - she acts them as well as she sings them. For me, it’s pure joy to hear her."
Along with Corigliano’s composition, the concert - the final one of the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s 50th anniversary season - features a Beethoven overture as a nod to the orchestra’s premiere all-Beethoven concert in 1954, and Richard Strauss’ "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme" Suite, a lively work for the entire orchestra.
JoAnn Falletta, conductor of another New York State orchestra, the Buffalo Philharmonic, makes her Brooklyn debut with this concert.
"I’m delighted about conducting [here] for the first time," she said in a recent interview. "It’s an exciting piece that we’re premiering by John Corigliano. He has such an appetite for everything, and he’s the only composer who can pull this off and make it the vibrant piece that it is.
"I worked on putting this program together," she continued, "and since it is the 50th anniversary [of the Brooklyn Philharmonic], we wanted to create all these special ties that link the orchestra’s history to New York City’s history and to music history."
Corigliano has the best perspective on this very special program of classical music that spans the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.
"I think it’s very appropriate that an American orchestra honors Beethoven and Strauss, but at the same time, represents American contemporary music, which is how an orchestra can actually remain relevant to the community," said Corigliano.
The Brooklyn Philharmonic performs the music of Beethoven, Strauss and Corigliano at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene, May 22 at 8 pm. Tickets are $20, $40 and $55. For more information, call (718) 622-5555.