As the title implies, Tournaments is a "contest piece,” a sort of Concerto for Orchestra in which first desk players and entire sections vie with each other in displaying their virtuosity.
The work is basically mono-thematic, and in three sections. After a brief fanfare announcing the "tournament" with a three note motto in brass and strings, and a downward rush of woodwinds, a jaunty chorale tune expands from the motto, and forms the raw material of the entire work. Brass, winds and strings each treat this theme as the work builds to a climax. Suddenly, a crash introduces a scherzo for piccolo and double basses in which the theme is compressed into running sixteenth notes. A short interlude is followed by a return of this scherzo, this time with the original choral superimposed upon it. Canons of brass lead into a highly rhythmic buildup reaching an enormous climax of sound and color. After a crash on the timpani, and a rush downward as in the opening of the work, the second section of the work begins - a lilting Allegretto.
The choral theme is inverted for this section, and the result is an "almost-waltz" in which three measures of 3/4 time are alternated with a measure of 7/’8 which subtly displaces the waltz effect. The waltz lilts to a climax in which all but five solo instruments suddenly drop out, leaving a miniature texture of sound which dissipates into a flute solo and a recap of the waltz. The final section begins with a soft but ominous running passage for piano and low strings. This new material grows in intensity as it is subjected to canonic treatment, diminution, augmentation and inversion. At the height of excitement, when the mysterioso beginning has been transformed to furioso, the entire brass section enters against the running string pattern singing the original choral in the original tempo and key. Repetition of earlier music rapidly follows: the rhythmic first climax, opening fanfare, bits of the almost-waltz, and the now-telescoped buildup to the choral which returns again with even heightened intensity, only to fall apart during its second repetition. No matter, however, as the orchestra charges in with a furious multi-noted coda which ends the work with great brilliance.
— John Corigliano