The clarinet squealed high and loud, resounding throughout the darkened recesses of New York's Avery Fisher Hall like klezmer gone mad.

Composer John Corigliano, who was on hand to help rehearse his 22-year-old Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra, smiled in wonder. "This guy is so good," he whispered. "And just listen to that orchestra!"

It was indeed impressive, this early-morning run-through of Corigliano's challenging score with the young clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein, in preparation for an evening concert with the Juilliard Symphony. Still, the occasion must have been charged with a certain nostalgia for the composer, for it was here that the world premiere of the concerto took place, back in 1977, when Stanley Drucker was the soloist and Leonard Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic.

Another Leonard, this one named Slatkin, will conduct the National Symphony Orchestra in the premiere of Corigliano's latest work, "A Dylan Thomas Trilogy," Thursday night at the Kennedy Center, with additional performances on Friday and Saturday nights. The soloists will be baritone Haken Hagegard, tenor John Aler, boy soprano Todd Breeden and the Choral Arts Society of Washington, under the direction of Norman Scribner. It promises to be a major statement from a distinguished and decidedly original lyrical master--one who has developed a deep affinity with the work of the late Welsh poet. While many musicians have been influenced by particular authors--the composer David del Tredici and his many hours of "Alice in Wonderland" settings, for example--it is rare to find a composer who has mined such a rich lode of material as Corigliano has from Thomas.

Corigliano, who turned 61 last month, abounds with enthusiasm and confidence these days. Despite his white hair, he looks at least a decade younger than he is--put a laurel wreath on his head and he'd make a plausible pageant Apollo--and he seems to have grown cheerfully into his status as one of America's "Grand Old Composers"-in-training.

"So many of us just celebrated our 60th birthdays," he marveled. "Joan Tower, John Harbison, William Bolcom, Charles Wuorinen, Steve Reich. Ellen Zwilich is next, I think." He could hardly have named a group of more disparate creators, all of them pursuing their own different musical paths. And yet that is the principal trend in American classical music today; rather than follow any pet theories or hard-and-fast rules, a composer now chooses not only the content of a given work, but its very syntax as well.

"Style is like handwriting," Corigliano said. "Your compositional style is an unconscious choice, I think--it comes with who you are--but the techniques you adapt are deliberate choices. Will you be a minimalist, a 12-tone composer, a neo-romantic? Or will you mix it up?"

Corigliano mixes it up. Virtually nothing is excluded automatically from his musical universe. He handles an orchestra superbly, with a full command of its resources (including an occasional dash of electronic music). Without losing his train of thought, he can shift from lush romanticism to the most creepy-crawly expressionism. He has written music for films, for operas, for chamber groups, for solo instruments and for full orchestra.

The NSO won the most prestigious classical Grammy Award, for best classical recording, for its 1996 disc of Corigliano's Symphony No. 1 (1990). The composer called this 50-minute threnody a "personal response to the AIDS crisis" and some critics dismissed it as pure editorial. Yet repeated listenings have proven it a score of such consummate skill, furious power and sheer musical interest that it can stand on its own--and then some.

Even better, in some ways, was the opera "The Ghosts of Versailles," written with librettist William M. Hoffman, which was the first new work the Metropolitan Opera had commissioned in almost a quarter-century and which became a runaway hit after its world premiere in December 1991. It is a wonderful opera--by turns funny, sad, tender, lush, lyrical, sophisticated and phantasmagorical--fashioned with grateful, elaborate, multi-tiered arias and ensembles that tested, but never quite exceeded, the limitations of the world-class singers the Met assembled.

In keeping with the sustained quasi-hallucination of Hoffman's libretto, Corigliano tried on a lot of different styles--from neo-baroque frippery to the most austere of high modernisms--and yet such is his fluency, individuality and seriousness of purpose that he never devolved into self-conscious eclecticism for its own sake.

In fact, Corigliano is a distinctly formal composer, who plots his compositions out carefully before he sits down to write, reserving the option, of course, to amend the music as it goes along. Thus the opening of "The Ghosts of Versailles" was originally plotted on graph paper, with several different colored pencils weaving in and out of one another's orbit. It would be incomprehensible to anybody but the composer; still, it provided a seed for the music to come.

Thereafter, Corigliano put into words a sketch of what he wanted to happen in this first scene. "Write several chords--non-related but building blocks," his notes read. "Cluster 'dissolves' notes one by one to leave chord. . . . This sounds like volume going up from nothing and down again, provides motion. . . ." Eventually the eerie scene took shape; Corigliano follows this process with all of his later works, and it adds a structural rectitude to his welcome flights of musical fancy.

Musical Sense & Sensitivity

The Brooklyn household in which Corigliano grew up could hardly have been more musical. For years he was known as John Corigliano Jr.; his father was a violinist who served as the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic from 1943 to 1966. Young Corigliano was therefore a regular visitor at Carnegie Hall (where the Philharmonic played before moving to Avery Fisher Hall in 1962) and he heard most of the great musicians of his time.

"I grew up with the sound of the orchestra in my head," he said, "but I'm still anxious about my own ability to orchestrate. I have to look everything up. I wrote a band piece not long ago, and I really couldn't hear it--I don't know band music that well--so I had to show it to somebody. Fortunately, he said it was all right."

Corigliano is bright, articulate and welcoming but obviously deeply sensitive. Although most of the reviews of "The Ghosts of Versailles" were positive--some of them were downright ecstatic--the composer visibly paled at the mention of one prominent and decidedly negative article. Indeed, in the past few years, Corigliano has abandoned reading any critiques of his music.

"Really, how much can you tell about a new piece the first time you hear it?" he continued heatedly. "Imagine taking Picasso's 'Guernica,' putting it on scrolls of paper and then unfurling it over a half-hour duration. Probably nothing would stick in your mind--there's a horse, there's a light bulb, but it would add up to gibberish because you couldn't take it all in. No, I don't place much stock in the critics. When I'm told that a good review has come in, I tell my publicist to use it but not to make me read it. When a bad review comes in, I just don't want to know about it."

Much of this sensitivity dates from Corigliano's childhood, when his father would send him out to buy the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune for morning reviews of the Philharmonic. "I remember the misery on his face, the unhappiness he'd feel when he'd read about his supposed faults in the paper. Nobody wants that. If I hadn't been able to shake off some of the bad reviews I've gotten, I wouldn't have been able to continue in this field."

Corigliano's parents were deeply opposed to their son's becoming a professional musician. But he had the bug, and nothing else would do. He studied composition at Columbia University with Otto Luening and at the Manhattan School of Music with Vittorio Giannini. After graduation, Corigliano decided to follow a pragmatic, "hands-on" musical path, rather than go into academia. And so he worked in radio and television, arranged rock music, produced recordings for Columbia Masterworks and generally played the role of all-around musician throughout the '60s and early '70s.

The piece that brought Corigliano his first fame was his Sonata for Violin and Piano (1963), which won the Spoleto Festival Competition for the Creative Arts. Putting aside whatever private objections he may once have felt, John Corigliano Sr. went so far as to learn the sonata and record it with the pianist Ralph Votapek. It is a wiry, exuberant, splendidly crafted exercise in a neoclassical genre and has since been played and recorded many times.

Corigliano refers to his early style as "a tense, histrionic outgrowth of the 'clean' American sound of Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, Roy Harris and William Schuman, rather than a descendant of the highly chromatic, super-Romantic German school." In retrospect, it is not surprising that he later turned to opera, for there was always something intensely theatrical about his work; one listened to a new Corigliano piece with a distinct sense of anticipation--of wanting to find out just where the music was going, rather as one waits for the final pages of a good thriller.

Although "A Dylan Thomas Trilogy" was fashioned especially for the NSO, parts of it date back 40 years, to the day when a friend gave Corigliano a collection of Thomas's poetry.

"It was a revelation," Corigliano recalled. "Both the sound and structures of Thomas's words were astonishingly musical." The 21-year-old composer decided to set a youthful poem called "Fern Hill" to music as a tribute to his high school music teacher, Bella Tillis, who later conducted the world premiere.

"Fern Hill" was only the beginning. In 1969, when Charles Wadsworth, the founding director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, commissioned a work for the fledgling troupe's opening season, Corigliano responded with a setting of Thomas's "Poem in October."

"When I set 'Fern Hill,' I had been just the same age as Thomas was when he wrote the poem," he said. "And then he wrote 'Poem in October' to commemorate his 30th birthday. 'Fern Hill' is about childhood, but in this second poem, the central character climbs a high hill and looks back on his past and forward toward his future. Well, I had just turned 30 myself, and I found that this poem reflected my own feelings perfectly."

The third part of the trilogy was written for the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976 at the request of the late Paul Callaway, who was then the director of the Cathedral Choral Society of the Washington National Cathedral. Corigliano was by then approaching the same age Thomas was when he died (in 1953, at 39, after a mammoth drinking session at the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village), and he decided to set a brooding late poem titled "Poem on His Birthday."

"The piece ends as the poet sails out to die," Corigliano observed in his program notes for "A Dylan Thomas Trilogy." "Yet even at this dire moment, intensity of experience is still its own reward. Even as the poet realizes that he is closer to, rather than farther from, the last of his days, he cannot help but exult that 'the closer I move to death, the louder the sun blooms.' " The "Trilogy" received its premiere at the cathedral on April 24, 1976.

Corigliano thought he was finished with Dylan Thomas. Still, he returned to the "Trilogy" again and again over the years and found it incomplete. Increasingly, he felt that the two opening sections were not as closely related to the final movement as they might have been.

"This is a very personal piece, one that I've been working over for a very long time," he said. "It's Thomas's life, but, by this point, it's my life, too. And if the character I was presenting was supposed to be an adult making sense of his future through his past, then I needed to present 'Fern Hill' and 'Poem in October' not as real-time events but as implied memories, heard from the perspective of the man who wrote 'Poem on His Birthday.' "

Now Corigliano himself has lived more than two decades longer than Thomas himself was permitted. "And I'm happier and more at peace than I've ever been," he explained as we rode to the Upper West Side apartment he shares with his companion of three years, the composer (and former Washington Post music critic) Mark Adamo and a hobbling, sweet-tempered 19-year-old dog.

"I thought perhaps there was something new to say from a vantage point that Thomas never reached--that point where you really come to terms with who you are and how you got there, reconciling your youth with maturity." And so, with the invitation of Slatkin and the John and June Hechinger Fund, who commissioned the new version, Corigliano set to work one more time on "A Dylan Thomas Trilogy."

He made a new setting of the first 51 lines of Thomas's own "Author's Prologue" to his collected poems, which Corigliano calls a "lavish, exultant poem that bellowed and shouted with lust and life." "Fern Hill" now follows it immediately in the playing order, and then the remainder of the "Author's Prologue," a revised "Poem in October" and, finally, "Poem on His Birthday." The entire work has been rescored, and roughly half an hour is brand-new. "Poem on His Birthday" now concludes with what Corigliano calls a reconciliation and "vocal apotheosis"--in short, a "happy ending."

"You know, I keep waiting for that famous repose that you're supposed to feel when you reach a certain age," Corigliano said. "That hasn't happened yet. But I used to be the most unfashionable guy around--a lot of the avant-garde composers dismissed me out of hand and the public didn't seem to be interested in any contemporary music. One time a critic accused me of trying to communicate with an audience--that was a bad thing, in his opinion. By now I hope that my attempts to communicate with an audience aren't seen as pandering, but rather as an effort to put some things across so that a new audience can get at least 1 percent of the material on a first hearing.

"I guess I'm saying that just because an audience likes something doesn't make it bad. It doesn't necessarily mean it's good, of course, but it might be. After all, even Beethoven pulls you in right away; it's only later that you discover that there are at least 100 layers underneath."


The music of John Corigliano has been widely recorded. The following pieces are especially worthwhile. For information on "A Dylan Thomas Trilogy," which will be presented at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Thursday at 7 p.m. and Friday and Saturday at 8:30 p.m., call 202-467-4600.

* Symphony No. 1 (BMG Classics). Leonard Slatkin conducts the National Symphony Orchestra in this incandescent performance of a powerful score, one of the most significant and effective orchestral pieces of the late 20th century.

* "The Ghosts of Versailles" (Deutsche Grammophon laser disc and VHS video, out of print). It is worth tracking down this splendid rendition of the premiere production. James Levine conducts the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, with Teresa Stratas, Haken Hagegard and Marilyn Horne in central roles.

* Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra (New World Records). Stanley Drucker, who gave the work its world premiere, delivers a virtuoso performance with the New York Philharmonic, under the direction of Zubin Mehta.

--Tim Page

CAPTION: "The sound and structures of Thomas's words were astonishingly musical," says Corigliano of his revised trilogy.