USC is ringmaster at battle of bands

Times Music Critic

The battle of the bands at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Sunday night was massively unfair. In a program dubbed “Wind & Brass Ensembles,” USC had the forces -- more than 80 brass, woodwind and percussion players (and even a harp!) -- boldly outnumbering its competition from CalArts and Cal State Northridge. It also had on hand a big-name composer -- John Corigliano -- with an extraordinary, big new piece.

Most of all, the USC Thornton Wind Ensemble had attitude, perhaps because its big new piece, “Circus Maximus,” evokes the enormous hippodrome of ancient Rome, where chariots raced, gladiators fought to the death and wild animals were slaughtered in sport before as many as half a million bloodthirsty spectators.

The Circus Maximus was, Corigliano claimed in a preconcert talk, the most extravagant entertainment venue the world has ever known. In “Circus Maximus” -- 35 minutes long and all wow all the time -- he demonstrated why.


The brass attack started off with a shriek that included clarinets howling to the wind with their bells in the air. The polite, churchly title for this opening movement is “Introitus,” but animalistic shriek it was, that of beasts about to meet their maker or the mob in search of a victim. Something shocking, at any rate, was up.

The scary sound came from all sides. Corigliano takes the circus idea literally by surrounding the performance space with musicians. Most of the band, which included a considerable percussion battery, was situated onstage, but individual players had perches on the Disney terraces and balconies. A saxophone quartet and string bass made their outpost in the organ loft. Behind me in the seats facing the stage front was a small but aggressive marching band.

Corigliano is America’s Benjamin Britten in that he has an arresting narrative skill. Like Britten, he illuminates straightforward, even banal, story ideas with striking effects.

Using an arsenal of modern techniques in very direct ways, he brings in extravagant sounds that startle and shock. But his dramatic intent is never obscure.

That theatricality is what has made Corigliano such a fine symphonist. His first symphony caught the public’s attention by capturing the AIDS era with music that is strong and immediately emotional while steering just short of the maudlin.

Corigliano is calling “Circus Maximus” his third symphony. It is a celebration of popular entertainment -- something the winner of an Academy Award for his score for “The Red Violin” is not about to disparage -- but the symphony is also a cri de coeur.


One of the seven movements following the howling “Introitus” is “Channel Surfing,” an ode to the short attention span. Two evocative movements of “night music” contrast getting away from it all (the country, with the cooing and braying of animals, and the glittery percussion telling of twinkling stars) and a night on the town (the bars, the jazz clubs, the sex and shootings).

In the sensory overload “Circus Maximus” movement, everyone plays past material at once, landing on a chord at maximum volume for two excruciating minutes that seem like 20. Corigliano follows the assault with a “Prayer” but ends with a gunshot. He is clearly having a good time with “Circus Maximus” but also issuing a warning: Too much entertainment will get you in the end.

An unforgettable piece, “Circus Maximus” got an exuberant performance Sunday from a first-rate ensemble led by H. Robert Reynolds.

The evening’s competition came from the CalArts New Millennium Brass Ensemble and Northridge’s Wind Ensemble. The CalArts contingent carried the banner for the avant-garde with Nick Didkovsky’s “Slim in Beaten Dreamers” for brass quintet and drummer.

A New York composer with hip downtown credentials, Didkovsky programmed his computer to come up with edgy figures tossed about for 25 minutes through 10 short movements. Every now and then, something caught the ear, but the waits in between were long. The playing, though, was tight and spunky.

Northridge’s ensemble worked through Mendelssohn’s Overture for Band (written when the composer was 15), Grainger’s cute “Colonial Song” and a hokey arrangement of three dances from Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Town.” Lawrence Stoffel was the conductor. The concert band, this segment suggested, has had a spotty history. But thanks to Corigliano, it sure seems to have a future. --