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A Tribute to John Corley

Music of the Late Corley Celebrated by Wind Ensemble, Concert Band, & Chamber Choir

By Jeremy Baskin

John D. Corley, a man who led the MIT Concert Band for some 50 years until his death last October, was celebrated by the MIT Wind Ensemble and several guests in a concert last Friday. Although billed as merely a “memorial concert,” the evening turned out to contain much more than music, as Kresge Auditorium was filled with written and oral accounts of Corley from an administrator, a faculty member, a student, and even from the man himself.

Four audio excerpts of recent interviews with Corley as part of the “Music at MIT Oral History Project” were played for the audience, including one in which he reminisced about his first time conducting the Concert Band: “the enthusiasm was contagious.”

Professor Alan Brody, the Associate Provost for the Arts, remembered Corley as a dedicated teacher who believed in his students’ potential. Music Lecturer Fred Harris, the director of the Wind Ensemble and a former student of Corley’s, spoke of the man’s boldness in commissioning new works and championing the medium of the wind ensemble over his half-century tenure at MIT. Finally, Jacob A. Strauss ’01, a current member of the Concert Band who played under Corley for two years, described the man somewhat comically as “one of the few people here at MIT that [the students in the band] remembered when they left.”

Happily, though, the words of admiration were complemented by music, which was presented by the Concert Band, the Wind Ensemble, and the Chamber Chorus.

The Concert Band opened up the concert with Essay for Band, a ten-minute work by Berklee School of Music faculty member William J. Maloof. The piece was full of shifting tonalities and moods, and the group had difficulty with many of the transitions between these moods. This work, which Harris described later in the concert as sounding as modern 41 years ago as it does today, was premiered in 1960 by the MIT Concert Band, conducted by Corley.

Sadly, the interpretation of this essay lacked structure, continuity, coherence, and style, as the players seemed to be struggling with both the content of the music and the execution of that music through their individual instruments.

After the piece, Thomas Reynolds, the director of the Concert Band, thanked the music department almost apologetically for allowing the Concert Band to perform alongside the Wind Ensemble. This comment, perhaps on behalf of the entire band, turned out to be a particularly poignant part of the program, especially in Corley’s absence, since it seemed to highlight the difference in quality between the Concert Band and Wind Ensemble (with the edge, of course, going to the Wind Ensemble).

The Wind Ensemble took over the performing duties for the rest of the concert, starting out with Aaron Copland’s Down a Country Lane. It seems to this reviewer that no concert in these parts is complete without a piece by Copland, considered by many to be the most influential American composer of all time. The piece was first performed by Lecturer William C. Cutter on piano solo, and then in a version transcribed for wind ensemble.

Both performances evoked feelings of warmth and sweetness; the wind ensemble version, however, was beset by fuzziness of rhythm, an unfortunate side effect of lyrical playing that often plagues this ensemble.

A set of three pieces by Percy Grainger, an early 20th century pianist and composer, followed. All the pieces had a folk quality to them, the kind of music that reminds one of Grainger’s native Australia. Here, the Wind Ensemble showed its full strength as one cohesive unit. Of particular note was a terrifically melancholic alto saxophone solo in “Colonial Song,” the second of the three pieces. The expressive trumpet solo in that piece brought out memories of Corley, who was a trumpeter, but was (amazingly) covered up by loud saxophones.

After the intermission came the meat of the program, as the audience was treated to the world premiere of “Roman Odes,” an opus composed by Berklee faculty member Michael H. Weinstein for the specific occasion of this concert. The work, for chorus and wind ensemble with solo French horn, is based on Latin texts taken from four books of Odes, by Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace), according to the program notes. The piece started with the lights almost completely out in the auditorium and many of the musicians and the entire chorus poised, at the rear of the hall, to march on stage.

The piece opened with a bold and majestic French horn call, played by Lecturer Jean M. Rife from a balcony. As the first movement, called Processional, progressed, the players marched down the aisles towards the stage and took their place by the end of the movement. Some brass players were blowing into what appeared to be long plastic white pipes -- perhaps MIT’s version of didgeridoos.

This first movement, in conjunction with the last movement, called Recessional, which decayed away to silence and darkness as players marched off the stage, gave off a dramatic effect not unlike O Fortuna from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.

The inner nine movements were varied in color but unified in theme. Weinstein is to be applauded for using the strengths of the parts of the large ensemble as units in themselves. One movement was a brass octet, another was a soliloquy for horn played beautifully by Rife, others had large instrumental sections, and still others used only part of the chorus.

The overall effect was a frequently tonal piece whose movements often ended on suggestive chords, introducing a new type of ensemble for the next movement. The cohesiveness of the performance was achieved by both the texts and by what appeared to be a well-rehearsed ensemble.

In all, the concert as a whole could not have been a better tribute to Corley, the musician and educator. The Maloof work reminds us of the many new works that Corley commissioned, and, as Fred Harris said in his comments, the Copland speaks to Corley’s warm spirit, the Grainger to his wit, and the Weinstein to his sense of adventure.