As we step into LGBTQ Pride Month and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra is producing its annual Music of Conscience series, which this year includes a work honoring those lost to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and ’90s.
On May 30 and June 1 at the David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center, the New York Philharmonic will perform a modern symphony inspired by the HIV pandemic written by Pulitzer Prize, Academy Award, and five-time Grammy winning composer John Corigliano. Written in 1988 and first performed by the philharmonic in 1992, Symphony No. 1 is the composer’s personal response to the AIDS crisis.
To add to the poignancy of the event, panels from the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt will be on display at the David Geffen Hall Grand Promenade, including a panel made at the original New York premiere of the symphony. As other panels were on display, audience members at that performance in 1992 were invited to inscribe the names of loved ones who had died of AIDS on a fabric panel that then became part of thequilt. That panel will show alongside other panels honoring New York City musicians who died of AIDS.
As a gay man living during the early years that AIDS ravaged the country and the world, Corigliano lost many friends and colleagues to the virus. “The cumulative effect of those losses has, naturally, deeply affected me. My Symphony No. 1 was generated by feelings of loss, anger, and frustration,” he explains on his website. (You can listen to a clip of Symphony No. 1 on the site.)
Corigliano was inspired by a viewing of the AIDS Memorial Quilt in the 1980s. The quilt is made up of panels celebrating the lives of those lost to the AIDS pandemic, created by loved ones of the deceased. “This made me want to memorialize in music those I have lost,” he wrote. The composer related the first three movements of the piece to the lives of musician friends who had passed due to AIDS.
The first movement, “Apologue: Of Rage and Remembrance,” recalls a tango melody, a favorite of a pianist friend. A lyrical phrase is slowly interrupted by chattering brass and the relentless heartbeat of percussive timpani drums. The result is tense and explosive, ultimately emotional.
The second movement, “Tarantella,” was written about a colleague in the music industry. Corigliano wrote, “The tarantella, as described in Groves Dictionary of Music, is ‘a South Italian dance played at continually increasing speed [and] by means of dancing it, a strange kind of insanity could be cured.’ The association of madness and my piano piece proved both prophetic and bitterly ironic when my friend, whose wit and intelligence were legendary in the music field, became insane as a result of AIDS dementia.”
The third movement, “Chaconne: Giulio’s Song,” honors a college friend. Giulio was a cellist, “full of that enthusiasm for music that amateurs tend to have and professionals try to keep.” The composer used a found cassette of the two improvising in their youth as the basis for this movement. “In the third movement,” Corigliano wrote, “still other friends are recalled in a quilt-like interweaving of motivic melodies.”
“Epilogue,” the final movement, is much more contemplative. Although there’s dissonance and tension in the piece, this last section of the work seems to be a plea or prayer by Corigliano. It leaves the listener with a feeling of sadness mixed with, perhaps, a tinge of hope.
Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1, presented with Brahms’ Tragic Overture and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24, is part of the official celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, under the auspices of the Stonewall 50 Consortium. The Stonewall 50 Consortium is an organization that brings together scores of nonprofit institutions and organizations committed to producing programming, exhibitions, and educational materials related to the Stonewall uprising and the history of the LGBTQ civil rights movement in the context of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising this June.