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Winging It: Piano Music of John Corigliano

Ursula Oppens, Jerome Lowenthal

Ursula Oppens and Jerome Lowenthal, piano

This new CD of piano music by the widely celebrated American composer John Corigliano (b. 1938) includes the world premiere recording of Winging It (2008), an improvisation-based piece written for the eminent American pianist Ursula Oppens, who also gave the work its concert premiere. Ms. Oppens has been a champion of contemporary composers and new music throughout her career. Winner of an Academy Award, four Grammy Awards, and a Pulitzer Prize, Corigliano (b. 1938) has written more than one hundred scores. His music has been performed and recorded by many of the world’s most prominent orchestras, soloists, and chamber ensembles. According to the All Music Guide, Corigliano ranks among “the few ‘serious’ contemporary composers whose appeal has ranged beyond the new-music crowd to reach listeners steeped in more traditional, time-tested fare.”

Preview Excerpts

Winging It: Improvisations for piano

I. 12/28/07 (3:04)
II. 1/3/08 (6:54)
III. 6/7/08 (3:15)

Chiaroscuro for two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart

I. Light (1:46)
II. Shadows (4:40)
III. Strobe (4:35)
Fantasia on an Ostinato (11:26)
Kaleidoscope for two pianos (5:41)

Etude Fantasy

Etude No. 1: For the Left Hand Alone (4:12)
Etude No. 2: Legato (1:56)
Etude No. 3: Fifths to Thirds (2:48)
Etude No. 4: Ornaments (4:19)
Etude No. 5: Melody (4:18)


What the Critics Are Saying

“… this superb disc of [Corigliano’s] fascinating piano music by two of the great current pianists of contemporary repertoire — Ursula Oppens and, in Corigliano’s two-piano pieces, Jerome Lowenthal.” — Jeff Simon, Buffalo News

“Recorded in December, 2010, at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, the sound is most realistic. The miking seems perfectly judged to produce a piano tone that actually appears to be coming from a distance of the listener to the speakers, in my case about eight-to-ten feet. Clarity is outstanding without sacrificing nuance, warmth, or resonance. Impact is strong, and the piano size is lifelike rather than stretching across the room.” —
John J. Puccio, Classical Candor

“The performances here are pretty stupendous…. The beautifully calibrated engineering, brilliant but never harsh or brittle, helps immeasurably. A disc to treasure.” — David Hurwitz, Classics Today

“…No composer could ask for a finer interpreter than Oppens, who once again turns in steely, dynamic performances, both alone and with the great Jerome Lowenthal.” — Zachary Lewis, Cleveland Plain Dealer

Cleveland Plain Dealer (

“The distinctive quality in John Corigliano’s music is its fusion of hard-edged dissonance with a graceful lyricism . . . That combination of flavors is everywhere in evidence in this handsome, strong-boned disc, which includes nearly everything Corigliano has written for the keyboard.” — Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle

San Francisco Chronicle (

“What sets this new Cedille release apart, apart from the incisive performances of Ursula Oppens (and her colleague Jerome Lowenthal in the duo-piano pieces), is that this is the first recording to be devoted entirely to the Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer’s solo and duo keyboard works…” —
John von Rhein, The Classical Review

The Classical Review (

Program Notes

Download Album Booklet

Winging It: Piano Music of John Corigliano

Notes by John Corigliano

Premiered May 5, 2009, by Ursula Oppens, at Symphony Space, New York, NY.

When I was a kid, I was always improvising at the piano. My mother taught piano in the living room of our Brooklyn apartment, and a parade of young people filled the air with Czerny, Mozart, and Bach during my after-school hours. After they left, I went to the “big” piano (there were two in the room) and made up things.

Sometimes they resembled Mozart, Bach, and Brahms; sometimes they resembled nothing familiar at all. I had two piano lessons with my mother. She was a great teacher, but not for me. We fought and I quit. I never studied the piano again, but kept playing it — just for fun. While I don’t know the fingerings of all the scales, nor the discipline of repeating something exactly as written (my reading skills were as poor as my digital ones), I did love getting lost in my imagination — and even when I played notes I didn’t want, I made them into “right notes” by using them again in the composition. (Stravinsky had been known to say that some of his unique sonorities came from his bad piano playing.) Through high school, I improvised, encouraged by my teacher, Mrs. Bella Tillis. While my parents were both against my going into music, Mrs. Tillis always encouraged me — and did for my entire life. But I had to get serious and learn notation and other musical skills. So I went off to Columbia University, majored in music, and learned to label the chords I had been playing by ear.

Writing music down is a very laborious process. While today’s computers make it easier, I still use a 0.9mm pencil to draw every note I imagine. Improvisation is sometimes useful to find starting material, or to advance a short distance, but since the act of notating is so cumbersome, it is really impossible to capture an improvisation of any length.

It is possible electronically to record an improvisation, but physically transcribing it is quite difficult, and the composer always ends up changing things while translating sound into notes. I did only one improvisation on tape, the 2 1/2 minute “Hinchi Mushroom Dance” for the film Altered States. I was improvising to the picture, and later used the shape of the improvisation (changing lots of notes) to form the orchestral dance in the film.

This project is quite different from transcribing an audiotape. Here, I was determined to improvise piano pieces on a keyboard, and translate them as accurately as possible to the page so Ursula Oppens could perform them in concert. To do this, I used a computer technology known as MIDI sequencing, which captures both the sounds and a crude but accurate notation of what is played.

I also needed an expert musician and technician to “translate” the notation. This is much more complex than it sounds. Since I improvised freely, there was no steady beat for the mechanism to insert measures. Mark Baechle was tasked with listening to what I played, and then trying to figure out how to put it into measures that made sense. There are many ways of notating the same music, so this required extraordinary musical experience.

Mark made his “translation” of what he heard and saw, and then I often re-barred it, or re-wrote it to clarify the moving voices or the right-left hand relationships. This happened several times until the written piece matched the recorded played one. Even then, certain changes had to be made, mostly due to my poor piano playing. Repeated sonorities or chords were often not repeated accurately in my performance, even though I knew that was what I wanted. So I had to correct the written proofs to compensate for my splattered notes. While I tried to reproduce accurately everything I played, sometimes it was not practical. The last improvisation, a 3 1/2 minute virtuoso piece, had ascending passages in running 16th notes in several sections. While I wanted to repeat those sections, I couldn’t remember them exactly, and therefore played other 16th notes in an ascending pattern. I could have notated these different passages as improvised, but that would be asking the pianist to play a consistently fast piece that never repeated any notes. So, occasionally, I copied the same notes into a later passage that was meant to do the same thing. The first improvisation was too short, and didn’t have a satisfying ending, so I took the liberty of repeating the opening section at the end (i.e., as a da capo) and added a single “composed” measure to conclude the piece. Other than that, these three improvisations are just that. They are titled by the date I originally played them. 

For two pianos, tuned one quarter-tone apart. Commissioned by Loretta Dranoff for the biennial Murray Dranoff International Two Piano Competition.

First performed December 21, 1997, at the Murray Dranoff International Two- Piano Competition, by Competition winners Anne Louise and Edward Turgeon, Miami, FL.

When Loretta Dranoff, founder of the biennial Murray Dranoff International Two Piano Competition in Miami, asked me to compose a test piece for her event, I was initially at a loss. I had composed one previous work for two pianos, Kaleidoscope, in 1959, and couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to say in that medium. I couldn’t see what made a second piano so important. It was the same sound; it was simply a matter of adding another player. I couldn’t reconcile why I should write for two pianos when I could write as well for one. Eventually, the deadline forced me to come up with a solution. What occurred to me, finally, was the idea to change totally the concept of two pianos by “preparing” one of them. This was not to be a prepared piano in the John Cage sense, with objects inserted between the strings. Instead, one of the pianos would be tuned a quarter-tone lower than the other. So each piano would sound perfectly tuned by itself, but, for example, the note G on one piano would sound at a pitch between G and F sharp on the other, creating eerie effects and dissonances when the instruments were played together.

Quarter-tones are readily (and sometimes unintentionally) produced by violinists and singers, but they rarely appear in piano music, because of the instruments fixed pitches. Charles Ives experimented with them, and they appear in Bartok’s classic string quartets. I have used them only twice before, in my (first) film score for Altered States, and in the opening star music of Pied Piper Fantasy, my concerto for flute and orchestra from 1982. In those contexts, I liked the eerie, hallucinatory quality the mistuning evoked. For Chiaroscuro, however, I wanted to use quarter-tone music expressively, as well as to make it a startling device. I was looking for the expressive power between two notes, as a blues singer does.

A brief annunciatory opening sets up a dreamy, ardent slow movement in which the sighing semitones that classical music has always used to express mourning are subdivided into quarter-tones for an effect I thought both subtler and more intense. The third movement interrupts a stabbing toccata in the competing C minor keys of the two pianos by bringing, for a moment, both pianists together to play on one piano. Here the music quotes a chorale by Bach, symbolic of our stable and traditional harmony (however, while both pianists are playing at last in the same key, they are still subtly out of rhythmic phase, as one player’s quarter note equals the other’s dotted eighth). But before long, the surrealism of quarter- tone harmonies returns, as each pianist seems to fight to define his or her tuning as tonic. All is resolved, though, in the percussive cluster of the final gesture. 

Commissioned by the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, 1985. First performed May 24, 1985, at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, by Barry Douglas; Texas Christian University, Fort Worth.

In 1985, the seventh Van Cliburn International Piano Competition commissioned me to write their competition piece to be played by 12 semi-finalists. In mulling over the project, I immediately rejected the idea of a technical showpiece as redundant. What could I write that would test something the standard repertoire would not? I decided I could investigate the performers’ imagination and musicality. A young performer’s life is dominated by guidance: from living teachers to the encyclopedic recorded catalogue of the world’s important pianists playing the standard repertoire, they are trained from childhood to re-create, rather than create. But this piece would be brand-new: no example waited to guide (or limit) them. And the piece would be deliberately constructed to make the players’ teachers of little to no help. They would be on their own.

So I constructed the beginning and end of Fantasia on an Ostinato precisely, but I made the large central section a series of interlocking repeated patterns: the performer decided the number and, to a certain extent, the character of these repetitions. In other words, the shape was his/hers to build. Interestingly, the duration of this piece varied from 7 minutes to over 20 in the Cliburn performances!

These repeated patterns comprise my only experiment in “minimalist” technique. While mulling this piece, I remembered minimalism’s forebears — Pachelbel’s Canon, Ravel’s brilliantly scored Bolero, and the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, in which a relentless ostinato, or accompaniment figure, continues unvaried (except for a long crescendo and added secondary voices) for nearly five minutes: unusual in Beethoven, who constantly varied his materials.

The first half of my Fantasia on an Ostinato develops the obsessive rhythm of the Beethoven and the simple harmonies implicit in the first half of his melody. Its second part launches those interlocking repetitions and reworks the strange major-minor descending chords of the latter part of the Beethoven into a chain of harmonies over which the performer-repeated patterns grow continually more ornate. This climaxes in a return of the original rhythm and, finally, the reappearance of the theme itself. 

First performed June 28, 1961, at the Festival of Two Worlds, by Morey Ritt and Stanley Hollingsworth; Spoleto, Italy.

I wrote Kaleidoscope for Two Pianos during my student years as an undergraduate at Columbia University (1955-59). The work began as a project in Otto Luening’s composition class and is dedicated to Luening and composer Marc Bucci. As the title implies, it is a colorful mosaic of changing symmetrical patterns, some infused with a ragtime feel, others highly lyrical in content. The work is in ternary form with an extended lyrical center that treats a folk-like melody to a variety of contrapuntal elaborations. In general, Kaleidoscope is high-spirited and full of the energy of youth. 

First performed October 9, 1976, by James Tocco, at the Kennedy Center, Washington, DC.

My Etude Fantasy is actually a set of five studies combined into the episodic form and character of a fantasy. The material in the studies is related most obviously by the interval of a second (and its inversion and expansion to sevenths and ninths) which is used both melodically and in building the work’s harmonic structure.

The first etude is for the left hand alone — a bold, often ferocious statement that introduces both an opening six-note row (the first notes of the work) and a melodic germ (marked “icy” in the score) that follows the initial outburst. This etude reaches a climax in which both the row and the thematic germ are heard together, and ends as the right hand enters playing a slow chromatic descent that introduces the next etude — a study of legato playing.

In the short second etude, both hands float slowly downward as the constant crossing of contrapuntal lines provides melodic interest. Sustaining the sound and maintaining the clarity of the crossing voices are both important here. The third etude is a study on a two-note figure: a fleet development on the simple pattern of a fifth (fingers one and five) contracting to a third (fingers two and four). In this section, there is much hand crossing, during which a melody emerges in the top voices. A buildup leads to a highly chromatic middle section (marked “slithery”) with sudden virtuosic outbursts, after which the melody returns to end the etude as it began. The fourth etude is a study of ornaments. Trills, grace notes, tremolos, glissandos, and roulades ornament the opening material (Etude I) and then develop the first four notes of the third etude into a frenetically charged scherzando where the four fingers of the left hand softly play a low cluster of notes (like a distant drum) as the thumb alternates with the right hand in rapid barbaric thrusts. This leads to a restatement of the opening six-note row of the fantasy, now highly ornamented.

After a sonorous climax comes the final etude, a study of melody. In it, the player is required to isolate the melodic line, projecting it through the filigree that surrounds it. Here the atmosphere is desolate and non-climactic, and the material is based entirely on the melodic implications of the left hand etude, with slight references to the second (legato) study. The work ends quietly with the opening motto heard in retrograde accompanying a mournful two-note ostinato.

Album Details

Total Time: 59:30

Producer: Judith Sherman

Judith Sherman

Engineering and editing assistant:
Jeanne Velonis

Piano Technicians
: Joel Bernache and Joel Britton

Front Cover Photograph:
“Toy bird fly away from cage” © Yasuhide Fumoto

Dec. 7–10, 2010, at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York
Publisher: G. Schirmer, Inc. (Winging It © 2008, Fantasia on an Ostinato © 1987, Kaleidoscope © 1963, Etude Fantasy © 1981, Chiaroscuro © 1997)

Art Direction:
Adam Fleishman –

© 2011 Cedille Records/Cedille Chicago

CDR 90000 123