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World Premiere: Corigliano's A Dylan Thomas Trilogy

Kennedy Center Concert Hall
03/11/1999 -  and 12, and 13, 1999
John Corigliano A Dylan Thomas Trilogy
Håkan Hagegård, baritone; John Aler, tenor; Todd Breeden, boy soprano
The Choral Arts Society of Washington, Norman Scribner, Music Director
The National Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin (conductor)

What a wondrous joy it is to be alive on the same planet at the same time as Håkan Hagegård. There are those who pine for the "Golden Age" of singing, but this mythical time seems to coincide with the youth of whoever is doing the pining. There are many currently active singers who justify asking the curmudgeons to stow their complaints, and Håkan Hagegård is clearly one of that number. This Swedish baritone is widely known for possessing a tone so sunny it could melt glaciers. In A Dylan Thomas Trilogy, Hagegård demonstrates that he is also amply well equipped to communicate the deep emotional nuances of Thomas' blackest poem while negotiating the acrobatic complexities of John Corigliano's score.

This oratorio-style "memory play" is based on four Dylan Thomas poems, each sung by a different soloist, representing different stages of the poets life. "Author's Prologue" for baritone, written near the end of the poets brief and turbulent life, is divided into two parts. The first section is performed before the dark-edged innocence of "Fern Hill" for boy soprano, the second before the gloomy nostalgia of "Poem in October" for tenor. The bitterly horrifying "Poem on His Birthday", also for baritone, commanded the entire thirty minutes after the intermission. The music weaves traditional choral singing, beautiful melodies, clashing dissonance, challenging solos, spoken word, and aleatoric sounds, including singer-simulated bird calls, together into a thrilling and haunting tapestry of sound.

In "Poem in October", the poet, on his thirtieth birthday, reflects on his past and anticipates his future. The tenor, John Aler, revealed the bittersweet beauties of this section with great understanding. The boy soprano, Todd Breeden, had a lovely silvery tone very appropriate to the youthful setting of "Fern Hill", but nerves prevented him from hitting all the notes as accurately as he might have. As has been said, Håkan Hagegård was absolutely magnificent. He proves again that his voice is perfectly suited to the interpretation of the idiosyncratic style of Corigliano's compositions. Hagegård delivered the lusty and exultant "Author's Prologue" with a combination of vibrant declamation and exuberant, joyful singing. Then for the grotesque desolation of "Poem on His Birthday", he edged his lyrical baritone with chilling intensity. This section inspired dread and horror in the listener with a vividness one would not think possible from an artist who is so closely associated with such charming Papageno's and Eisenstein's.

The Choral Arts Society of Washington sounded even more glorious than usual, negotiating this complex and difficult piece with seemingly little effort. Leonard Slatkin lead the National Symphony Orchestra in an intelligent and spirited reading of the score. It is a severe blow to contemporary classical composition, and a great disservice to Corigliano fans, that the planned recording of A Dylan Thomas Trilogy has been cancelled.

A Dylan Thomas Trilogy will be performed again March 26, 1999 at Carnegie Hall in New York.

M. K. Blackwood



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