Music to shock, unsettle, entertain

Circus Maximus is a musical commentary on our increasingly violent distractions.

Tom Murray, Edmonton Journal - 20 October 2010

Concert preview
Tom Murray, Edmonton Journal


With: University Symphonic Wind Ensemble and New Edmonton Wind Sinfonia

When: Thursday at 8 p.m.

Where: Winspear Centre

Tickets: $10 to $20, 780-492-0601 or at the door


EDMONTON - As far back as the second century BC, Rome's rulers knew that they needed to distract the citizens of their capital city with games and spectacle.

The Circus Maximus was the first and largest venue built for the purpose of staging chariot races and gladiatorial combat, bloody events that sated the crowd's need for thrills. Thousand of years later, we look back with fascination and repulsion at how Rome's leaders kept their subjects in thrall with such crude methods. Nowadays, of course, there's a much more sophisticated method of doing this.

"We may not be feeding people to the tigers anymore, but our own reality television shows are getting wilder and wilder," sighs New York composer John Corigliano, whose Circus Maximus was a musical commentary on how our society is bombarded with senses-dulling entertainment.

"In Roman times, this was how people were distracted from the barbarian invasions. The entertainment got bloodier. Now, we watch someone get blown up on a show, and then there's a toothpaste commercial.

"Spectacle is an avoidance of things that we know in our hearts -- that someone can walk in with a suitcase and blow up a building. And it's not just the negative things; whether it's the new iPod, Kindle or iPad, these are simply ways for us to shift our attention away."

Corigliano has a better understanding of the entertainment industry than most. He's an award-winning composer with an Oscar win (the score for The Red Violin), Pulitzer for his Symphony No. 2 and a Grammy (he has three) for last year's Mr. Tambourine Man, Seven Poems of Bob Dylan. Circus Maximus, which he wrote in 2004, is unique among his work in that it's written for bands, not symphony orchestra, and the musicians are staged around the hall, surrounding the audience.

He's in town for the next few days overseeing the Canadian premiere of his piece, which will be performed by the combined University Symphonic Wind Ensemble and New Edmonton Wind Sinfonia.

"Normally I prefer to write for symphony orchestras, but when you work with bands, they're able to rehearse in advance," he notes. "Having musicians surround the audience is also something of an unusual thing. I wanted people to feel as though they're in the arena itself."

Judging by the critical raves attending the premiere performances performed by the Austin Wind Ensemble, for whom he wrote the piece, Corigliano has done what he set out to do. Like the original Circus Maximus, the concert will unsettle, shock and entertain, with surprises coming from every corner of the Winspear. It's exciting, strange and an overt social commentary, which Corigliano points out isn't quite as unusual in classical music as you might think.

"If you look at Beethoven, he erased his dedication to Napoleon (in his Eroica Symphony), which was a political gesture. I wrote my own Symphony No. 1 (for which he won the Grawemeyer Award in 1991) as a response to the AIDS crisis, after seeing so many of my friends afflicted and dying, and then there was the set of Bob Dylan lyrics I set as poems, so there are examples out there."

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