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Finding Nature, Rage And Humor In Modern American Symphonies

The AIDS Memorial Quilt on display at the Washington Monument in October 1992. The AIDS crisis is the subject of John Corigliano's Symphony No. 1, "Of Rage And Remembrance." (AFP/Getty Images)

The symphony after World War II appeared to be headed for extinction as composers took divergent paths to experiment with musical language and forms. But the evidence of recent decades shows that the genre was never really on the verge of disappearing.

Dozens and dozens of symphonies — or works of expansive ambition that make generous use of the orchestra or large ensembles — have emerged in the past half-century from composers eager to stretch themselves. Some of these pieces adhere to European models without sounding at all European. Others stray from the rules entirely, establishing fresh means of expression that may or may not have roots in American sources.

As expensive as works of symphonic persuasion may be to bring to performance, they continue to challenge and fascinate composers, more than a few of whom return to this daunting endeavor again and again. Philip Glass has written 10 symphonies. Kevin Puts' Symphony No. 4 is being released Sept. 10.

What's clear from the examples below is that Mahler came close to being right: "The symphony is the world; it must contain everything." These works may not contain everything, but they abound in diverse ideas that reach out in unexpected and affecting directions.

Donald Rosenberg is former music critic of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and author of The Cleveland Orchestra Story: Second to None (Gray & Company, 2000). He served four terms as president of the Music Critics Association of North America.

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