ACO Parables: Composer Spotlight – John Corigliano

John Corigliano is one of the most celebrated composers of the last 40 years. He won the 1991 Grawemeyer Award for his Symphony No. 1, the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for his Symphony No. 2, three Grammy Awards, and an Academy Award for his score for François Girard’s 1998 film The Red Violin. Corigliano’s extensive body of work—including three symphonies and eight concerti among more than 100 chamber, vocal, choral, and orchestral works—have been performed and recorded by many of the most prominent orchestras, soloists, and chamber musicians in the world.

One of the few living composers to have a string quartet named for him, Corigliano serves on the composition faculty at the Juilliard School of Music and holds the position of Distinguished Professor of Music at Lehman College, City University of New York, which has established a scholarship in his name.

At ACO Parables – Tuesday, May 23, 2017, 8pm at Symphony Space – American Composers Orchestra will perform Corigliano’s Troubadours: Variations for Guitar & Orchestra featuring star guitarist Sharon Isbin, for whom the piece was written. 

Corigliano was kind enough to answer a few questions about the piece.

Composer John Corigliano

American Composers Orchestra: You write that when Sharon Isbin first approached you about writing a guitar concerto, you felt that the instrument was one you didn’t fully understand. Can you talk about your process for coming to understand the instrument better? Were you surprised by anything you learned about it?
John Corigliano: Actually, Sharon approached me many years before I wrote her my guitar concerto. There were three things that put me off writing for guitar:
  1. I knew nothing about how to write for this highly idiomatic instrument.
  2. It is such a soft instrument that I could not conceive writing a virtuoso piece that could balance the soloist with an orchestra (even if the guitar was amplified).
  3. Because of the tuning, everything strummed on the instrument took on a Spanish flavor, and I did not want to write yet another “Spanish” guitar concerto. 
To solve “1” I found a fine classical guitarist who was also a composer. He wanted to study composition with me, and so we exchanged lessons for a summer. I helped him work on an opera, and he was my “living guitar.” Every time I wrote something I thought was idiomatic, it turned out to be awkward, and we fixed it. The entire concerto was written and corrected before Sharon ever saw it. In fact, she said it was the first piece written by a non-guitarist that she didn’t have to alter in any way. But I still don’t know how to write for guitar …
ACO: You write that the virtuosity in Troubadours is quite different from that of your other concertos. Can you talk about this difference? What kind of virtuosity is asked of the guitarist in Troubadours?
JC: To solve “2” I had to re-think what virtuosity a guitar can provide. All my other concerti were for instruments that could compete with a full orchestra when necessary. This instrument had to have a miniature but exciting kind of energy. The entire orchestra had to be reduced, and often instruments played offstage so that the soloist was in the forefront of the ensemble.

ACO: Other than, obviously, asking you to write a guitar concerto and presenting you with troubadours as an inspiration for the piece, what role did Sharon have in your compositional process?
JC: Sharon saw the concerto when it was finished. She did, however, inspire the work.
My reluctance to write a concerto had to do with the kind of “Spanish” sound that the guitar inevitably makes. I resisted writing a concerto for that reason for many years. Then Sharon, who knew of my resistance, came to me with the idea of writing a piece about the troubadours who sang and accompanied themselves with a guitar. This took place well hundreds of years before the instrument was co-opted by the Spanish (to very good effect). The lute tuning in a guitar tunes the lowest tone down a step, and the melodies that have been notated in medieval manuscripts are quite beautiful. Not only that, but there was a famous female troubadour, La Comtessa (Beatritz) de Dia, who wrote a beautiful melody that so inspired me that I incorporated it (A chantar) into my concerto.
Listen to A chantar m’er de so by La Comtessa (Beatritz) de Dia:

ACO: Your incredible body of work spans more than four decades. Can you talk about any particular influences, techniques or styles that were especially important for you while writing Troubadours?
JC: I have always been fascinated by spatial music in the concert hall. Earphones or stereo speakers cannot capture the beauty of music that comes from unexpected places. In Troubadours, two French horns are backstage on one side, while a “Shawm” (early music oboe or bassoon) band and percussion are on the other side. I also used a chamber orchestra to give the soloist a better chance with the balance.

ACO: What do you hope the audience will feel during Sharon’s performance of Troubadours at ACO Parables, and what do you hope they will take away from it?
JC: I hope they will hear the piece as a journey to the past (and a return to the present.)

ACO and guitarist Sharon Isbin will perform Corigliano’s Troubadours at ACO Parables – Tuesday, May 23, 2017, 8pm at Symphony Space. Book now!

Learn more about John Corigliano at

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