John Corigliano remembers surprise Oscar win for ‘The Red Violin’

John Corigliano won the Oscar for his work on "The Red Violin."
(Ken Hively, Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

In the annals of upsets at the Academy Awards, composer John Corigliano’s win for the little-seen 1999 movie “The Red Violin” ranks as one of the biggest surprises in recent Oscar memory.

Corigliano wrote a lush, neo-classical score for the movie and enlisted violinist Joshua Bell and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen to execute it. Despite the prestige talent involved, his original score wasn’t expected to win on Oscar night. The favorite that year was Thomas Newman’s music for “American Beauty.”

In a recent interview, Corigliano recalled that night at the Shrine Auditorium. “I came there convinced that Thomas Newman was going to win,” the New York composer said. “I was thrilled to go to the Oscars and to enjoy it and go to the parties. I didn’t have any speech prepared.”

When his name was called out, “it was a total and complete shock to me. I didn’t have anything to say. I just blabbed something about symphonic composing, which is lonely, and the art of making movies, which is collaborative.”


And then a fluorescent light in the audience began flashing. “It said, ‘Get Off,’” recalled the composer.

Corigliano recently attended rehearsals for Los Angeles Opera’s production of his opera “The Ghosts of Versailles.” The production, directed by Darko Tresnjak, is the first new staging of the complete opera to be seen in the U.S. in years.

“Ghosts,” which stars soprano Patricia Racette and Broadway veteran Patti LuPone, opened earlier this month and will continue its run at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion through March 1.

Corigliano received his first Oscar nomination for the edgy 1980 science-fiction movie “Altered States,” directed by Ken Russell, but lost the award to the movie “Fame.” He also wrote the score for the 1985 Al Pacino movie “Revolution,” which was a notorious flop.

After that, “I didn’t want to do another film,” the composer recalled. “I said that was the end of movies for me.”

But then Peter Gelb, who at the time was the head of Sony Classical, sent him the script for “The Red Violin” and the composer eventually met with the film’s director, François Girard. The Canadian filmmaker was just off the critical success of another classical music-themed movie, “Thirty-two Short Films about Glenn Gould.”

“We circled each other and were wary,” recalled Corigliano. He said the score had to be played and recorded before “The Red Violin” was filmed because there were a lot of shots of fingers and bows moving.

“I found Francois a joy to work with... he was sensitive to music,” said the composer. “And we worked beautifully together. When we disagreed, we fought it out. Sometimes he was right, sometimes I was.”


“The Red Violin” follows a single violin over the course of centuries as it changes hands and travels across continents, from Europe to Asia and finally North America. The central mystery of the movie is how the instrument got its deep red color, the answer to which is revealed late in the story.

Corigliano, who lives on New York’s Upper West Side, said he keeps his Oscar statuette on a shelf in his teaching room where he also keeps his Pulitzer Prize and multiple Grammy Awards.

As for that remarkable Oscar night, Corigliano said that what he remembers most is that he forgot to thank his mother. “It caused a great deal of trouble because she was in Miami watching it on TV,” said the composer.

“I was later told that she leaned toward the screen and said, ‘What about me?’ I had lots of apologies to make.”


Twitter: @DavidNgLAT