William Bolcom, composer
Program Notes by Steven Blier
September 23 and 25, 2008, Merkin Hall
© 2008 New York Festival of Song (http://nyfos.org)
If Michael Barrett and I were to create our own musical Mount Rushmore, we would have to start with sixty-foot sculptures of Leonard Bernstein and William Bolcom. We might argue about the other two profiles—I’d be lobbying for Carlo Maria Giulini, and Michael would be pushing for Robert Schumann—but Lenny and Bill would certainly have pride of place. Like many Americans my age, I grew up watching Maestro Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts on television, and later caught some of them live at what was then known as Philharmonic Hall. Bernstein’s blend of passion and clarity was a source of fascination. His uncondescending respect for all genres of music gave an entire generation the permission to evaluate and respond openheartedly to everything from Top 40 hits to aleatory orchestral experiments. I’ll never forget his 1965 appearance with Janis Ian on a national television show called Inside the Rock Revolution. Bernstein analyzed “Society’s Child” with the same fervor he brought to Mahler symphonies, and wrapped the young singer/songwriter in the embrace he used for stars like Mstislav Rostropovich and Glenn Gould. He was over the top before the phrase even existed, but his uninhibited, Dionysian, physical reaction to music did not bypass the intellect. Bernstein gave you plenty of hard facts along with his dazzling showmanship, and lots of musical steak along with the acrobatic sizzle of his podium gyrations.
I admit that Leonard Bernstein’s extravagant, sweaty theatrics were always a little threatening to me, but they were also a big turn-on. When I first encountered William Bolcom, he was, by comparison, the “Essence of Cool.” I first became aware of him in the early 1970s, during the Ragtime Revival. The dapper elegance of his LP Heliotrope Bouquet redefined hipness, and his records of American vaudeville tunes with his wife Joan Morris seduced a surprisingly wide spectrum of listeners, including my brother who was more oriented to driving rock bands than piano-and-voice recitals. I heard Joan and Bill live for the first time exactly thirty years ago at Tully Hall, having been obsessed with their records for several years. Their concert of American popular song, spanning the hundred years from the Civil War era to the 1960s, was a life-changing experience for me. They wore their scholarship lightly as they footnoted their material with the gentlest touch of historical background. Every song blazed into life, and they were able to plumb the despair of Kay Swift’s “Can’t We Be Friends” without losing the song’s essential lightness. At the end of that evening, I announced to the empty air, “Well, that’s what a song recital ought to be!” It is no coincidence that NYFOS sprang to life ten years later; the first seed was planted that night by Bolcom and Morris.
Bernstein and Bolcom entranced me both as performers and as spokesmen for their wide-ranging musical enthusiasms. Their command of music history seemed to stretch from the cavemen to the rappers. There was no corner of music that they hadn’t explored, no idiom that they had not embraced, no significant performer whose work they didn’t know intimately. And their warm acceptance of so many musical styles has lent depth and variety to the songs they’ve written. So has their deep knowledge of the world’s literature, not a necessary trait for a successful songwriter, but an enriching one.
Another salient quality that links these two songwriters is their highly developed performer’s instinct for audiences. Unlike many composers, both of them spent a lot of time making music in public, and their long experience in theaters, concert halls—and even (in Bolcom’s case) Seattle’s burlesque houses—made both of them masters of dramatic tension, expert humorists, and aces of theatrical rhythm.
Bernstein and Bolcom do have a lot in common, but they are distinctly different breeds of American maverick. By now, the career of Leonard Bernstein has become a legend. Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1918, educated at Boston Latin School, Harvard, and Curtis, he became the assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic in 1943. When music director Bruno Walter fell ill one autumn day during Bernstein’s first season of tenure, the twenty-five-year old maestro stepped in on short notice to conduct the matinee broadcast performance. His sensational debut launched him first to national fame, and later into the international arena. Bernstein became the first American to conduct at La Scala, and what a debut: Cherubini’s Medea with Maria Callas in 1953. Five years later, he became the principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic, dramatically raising the orchestra’s profile through his charisma, good looks, and energetic spontaneity. Under Bernstein, the New York Philharmonic was chic, not stuffy. Later on, he conquered that tradition-bound stronghold, Vienna; they championed the Jewish-American maestro even when he tackled their most sacredly held works, including the Mahler symphonies and Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier.
From the beginning of his career, Bernstein balanced his life as a conductor of “serious music” with his unabashed love for popular musical theater. He had already demonstrated his respect for jazz during his college days. At Harvard, his thesis was entitled The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music, and its first sentence set out the mission that would define his life: “I propose a new and vital American nationalism; it is my task to define it.” The rhythms of jazz, often spiced with the cadences of Jewish liturgy, became his hallmark. He brought the musical ethos of Harold Arlen and George Gershwin definitively into the concert hall, and in doing so, he redefined the very meaning of classical music.
All music-lovers know Bernstein’s legacy so well that it is easy to forget how unusual his achievements are. He created something no other superstar conductor had done before: a canon of Broadway shows that have achieved the status of classics. After his nights at the Philharmonic, he hung out with a group of cabaret performers called The Revuers. They weren’t big stars at the time, but they soon would be: Judy Holliday (later the star of Born Yesterday and Bells Are Ringing); and Betty Comden and Adolph Green (whose resumés would eventually boast Singin’ in the Rain, On the Twentieth Century, and The Will Rogers Follies). When Bernstein teamed up with choreographer Jerome Robbins and director George Abbott to enlarge his 1944 ballet suite Fancy Free into a full-length Broadway musical, he brought on his friends Comden and Green as lyricists and lead actors. The result—a smash hit called On the Town—launched Bernstein’s career on Broadway. He was 26 years old. Peter Pan, Wonderful Town, Candide, and West Side Story followed—as well as his one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti, whose portrait of a failing marriage in 1950s suburbia has survived the test of time and become a modern-day classic. Tonight, we’ll focus on Wonderful Town, whose score has always had a special appeal for me. We’ve got two of its greatest hits: “One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man,” a comedy number written to Rosalind Russell’s specifications (sing a verse, top with a joke, repeat four times), and “Ohio,” which gives a real swing to this “swing state.” We also offer “The Story of My Life,” a beautiful song—half ballad, half comedy routine—that got cut during tryouts when it proved to be a showstopper in the negative sense.
Since Bernstein was both a conductor and a Broadway composer, it is no surprise that the lion’s share of his songs are either from shows or written for voice and orchestra. His piano-and-voice repertoire is minuscule: four song cycles (I Hate Music, La bonne cuisine, Two Love Songs set to poems of Rilke, and Arias and Barcarolles for piano four-hands and two voices), in addition to a few odds and ends written for special occasions. Of those songs, Arias and Barcarolles has the most depth and importance, and I don’t think my opinion is born purely out of personal bias. It is true that As and Bs, Bernstein’s last completed work, was crucial to NYFOS’s history: the composer gave NYFOS the rights to its American premiere, and that 1989 concert helped launch our fledgling organization. Having played the work many times, I am still moved by the insight it gives into Bernstein’s character, as well as by its wide range of musical styles, from the Broadway cadences of “Mr. and Mrs. Webb Say Goodnight” to the twelve-tone row of “The Love of My Life,” which we’re offering tonight. In this song, Bernstein seems to unveil the sadness and confusion of his soul. Don’t miss the quote of Wagner’s famous Tristan und Isolde theme at the end of the song—sly, funny, and devastating all at the same time.
While Bernstein’s performing life was spent mainly in front of orchestras, William Bolcom’s career has centered around the piano; he has been accompanying his wife Joan Morris in recital for over three decades. It makes sense that most of his songs are written for voice and piano—four books of Cabaret Songs, several song cycles (I Will Breathe a Mountain, for Marilyn Horne, and Briefly It Enters, for Benita Valente), choral works (including The Mask and The More Loving One), and vocal chamber music (most notably Let Evening Come, written for soprano Benita Valente and violist Michael Tree, with Cynthia Raim at the piano). Last season, NYFOS commissioned and premiered Bolcom’s new chamber opera, Lucrezia—brilliantly scored, NYFOS-style, for two pianos, “in the grand Broadway tradition of Ohman and Arden,” as Bill described it.
This is not to undercut Bolcom’s stunning output in other genres: eight symphonies, three operas, three musical theater works (“actors’ operas,” he once called them—Dynamite Tonite, Greatshot, and Casino Paradise), the Pulitzer Prize-winning 12 New Etudes for Piano, and the magnificent William Blake cantata, Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Leonard Bernstein may have been eclectic—I once heard him toss off a rap song at a New Year’s Eve concert—but when it comes to mixing genres, no one has outdone William Bolcom. The Blake piece runs the gamut from country and western, rock, blues, and reggae numbers to sections reminiscent of Mahler and Berg, neoclassicism, atonal music, and folk songs.
Bolcom came to prominence more gradually than Bernstein. He was clearly destined for music from an early age; when he was eleven, his parents enrolled him at the University of Washington to study composition and piano one day a week. But he was not catapulted into stardom in his early 20s, as Leonard Bernstein had been. After receiving his B.A from the U. of W. at age 20, he continued his studies at Mills College with French composer Darius Milhaud. Bolcom went on to finish his doctorate at Stanford University, and then enrolled in the Paris Conservatoire to continue his work with Milhaud and take “esthétique musicale” classes from Olivier Messaien.
The freewheeling and prolific Milhaud proved to be a powerful influence on Bolcom. Among the many valuable things Milhaud passed on to his American student was his love of Latin music. In 1917, Milhaud had gone to Brazil as secretary to the writer and diplomat Paul Claudel. He stayed in São Paulo for two years, reveling in the sound of sambas, tangos, and the wild cadences of Brazil’s native cultures—the authentic version of “jungle music.” Bolcom, Milhaud’s prize pupil, went on to become an advocate for the Brazilian composer Ernesto Nazareth and helped to popularize Astor Piazzola’s nuevo tango in American concert settings. Bill’s feeling for South American rhythms is of a piece with his passion for early American ragtime composers like Scott Joplin, W. C. Handy, and Eubie Blake, all of whom were brushed by what Jelly Roll Morton called “the Latin tinge.”
Like most composers of his generation, Bolcom was indoctrinated in the prevailing serialist/modernist precepts of the late 1950s and early 1960s, but very soon he broke away and began serving up what I call the “Bolcom Salad.” Freely mixing every kind of tonality and atonality with the cadences of popular styles and dance rhythms, he flouted all doctrines, received wisdoms, trends, and fashions. While Bernstein worked within the system, imposing his powerful vision on Broadway and at Lincoln Center, Bolcom seemed resolutely tied to the counterculture, a musical hippie. He was certainly on the radar screen, especially through his recordings on Nonesuch that brought him a wide following. But in the 1970s and 80s, his compositions were mostly premiered by mid-size organizations like the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, or at Aspen; his theater works were seen at the Yale Repertory Theater, or the Guthrie in Minneapolis, or off-Broadway, rather than on the Great White Way.
When I first knew Bill in the 1970s, he demonstrated a certain disdain for classical singing, although he’d done his time as a vocal répétiteur as a young man. (“Maybe that was the cause of the disdain,” he muttered.) He couldn’t understand why opera professionals continued to study voice throughout their careers—“Haven’t they learned how to sing by now?” he asked—and tended to characterize the full-throated cry of a soprano as “inexpressive.” Like Sondheim, he preferred the dryer verbal and emotional clarity of actors to the opulent roar of unamplified tenors. Bolcom’s transition from the cowboy of classical music (which is how I always thought of him) to the guru of classical music (which is closer to his current status) began in 1984 with Songs of Innocence and of Experience. It was simply too big and too good to be ignored. I first heard it at BAM, the New York theater that is so “downtown” it’s all the way in Brooklyn; but when the oratorio came to Carnegie Hall a year or so later, the concert seemed like a coronation for the Hippie Prince of Music.
I think that writing Songs of Innocence and of Experience, which included difficult, extended sections for operatic voices, must have started to open Bolcom’s mind to the new trends in classical singing. Bill was becoming aware that opera singers in the late twentieth century had developed far greater acting skills than the “park-and-bark” school that had prevailed through the 1950s and 60s—not to mention far more natural English diction. “After all, how many other singers from that time can you count—besides Evelyn Lear—whose English you could understand?” he commented.
From my perspective, Bill’s Great Breakthrough became definitive in 1991 when he was commissioned by Carnegie Hall to write a song cycle for Marilyn Horne and pianist Martin Katz. The night they premiered the work, I Will Breathe a Mountain, the pre-concert lecture and Q & A session was a slightly surreal experience: the doyenne of classical singing fielding questions seated right next to music’s Wild Man of Borneo. The cycle exploited the range, virtuosity, and expressivity of Horne’s singing, to say nothing of Martin Katz’s dazzling piano technique. Bolcom had already been invited to write his first opera for the Chicago Lyric (McTeague, 1992), followed in rapid succession by two more commissions from the Lyric, A View from the Bridge (1999) and A Wedding (2004). More song cycles followed too, composed for another of classical music’s staunchest citizens, Benita Valente.
To encapsulate Bolcom’s vocal music in a mere half of a recital, we’ll sample his work in four genres. The smorgasbord starts with two art songs: the brash “How to Swing Those Obbligatos Around,” a lurching tango that includes a couple of coloratura licks written to show off Rossini whiz Horne; and “Otherwise,” whose pure line and harpsichord-like accompaniment evoke the pristine sensibility of Mozart specialist Valente. To hear Bill-the-opera-composer, we’ll offer three excerpts from McTeague, including one of opera’s great modern mad scenes, “Golden Babies.” Casino Paradise represents his “actors’ operas.” Though Bill and his long-time librettist Arnold Weinstein grappled for years with Casino’s unwieldy book, its songs find both the composer and the lyricist at their very best. (Casino is my favorite Bolcom/Weinstein score.) Bill’s most famous vocal pieces are his Cabaret Songs; for tonight, we’ve chosen “Waitin’” and “Blue,” in which I feel Arnold left us his most touching and revealing self-portraits.
Bolcom thrives as he celebrates his seventieth birthday. His inspiration seems as unbridled as ever, and his works are now heard in all the major concert venues. A View From the Bridge even got produced at the Met, which brought another delicious moment of cognitive dissonance for those of us who have watched him slowly embrace this art form. Seeing Bill Bolcom and Arnold Weinstein take their bows on opening night, December 5, 2002, was my clearest signal that a new century had indeed begun.
The end of Bernstein’s career, on the other hand, found the maestro struggling with an escalating series of creative problems. In the 1963-4 season, he took an early sabbatical from the Philharmonic to give himself time to compose. During six of those months he holed up with his On the Town team—Jerome Robbins, Betty Comden and Adolph Green—to write a musical based on The Skin of Our Teeth. They were excited about turning Thornton Wilder’s play into a Broadway show. But the project fizzled. Only one song emerged, “Spring Will Come Again,” whose beautiful melody Bernstein grabbed for his Chichester Psalms. It was a grim experience for the maestro. Everyone was waiting for him to write another piece with the immediate popular appeal of West Side Story, but the muses were proving recalcitrant.
Bernstein seemed to have thrived on overcommitment. In 1967 he stepped down as principal conductor of the Philharmonic in order to devote himself to composition; nine years later he left his troubled marriage in order to allow his homosexuality full play. Attempting to give himself more freedom in his musical and emotional life, he instead encountered some serious reversals.
This is not to dismiss the final two decades of Bernstein’ life, which certainly had their share of successes—Songfest (1977) is a dazzling composition, and Arias and Barcarolles (1988) can stand with his best works. The controversial Mass (1971) contains many wonderful moments (and also a fair share of unfortunate lyrics). He continued to make some beautiful recordings (the Beethoven symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic), as well as some eccentric ones (La bohème, West Side Story), and he flourished as a teacher and mentor to young conductors. But his biggest projects were misfires, and highly publicized ones. His much-anticipated bicentennial musical, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, ran seriously aground and closed after seven performances on Broadway. His next work for the theater, the opera A Quiet Place, was panned at its 1983 premiere in Houston. The opera was a sequel to Trouble in Tahiti, which Bernstein originally used verbatim as the first act of the new work. A subsequent revision, which played at La Scala and the Vienna Staastoper, vastly restructured and improved the work; but the contrast between the bleak, late-Lenny music of A Quiet Place and the immediate appeal of Trouble in Tahiti, written thirty years earlier, remained a stumbling block for many listeners. It seemed that the more directly Bernstein tried to compose serious, large-scale works about his great concern, “the crisis in faith,” the more he seemed to lose his way.
But Leonard Bernstein remained the king of classical music to the end. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it was Bernstein who conducted Beethoven’s Ninth at the ruins. He was his old, fiery self—and impetuously changed the famous Ode to Joy (Freude) to an Ode to Freedom (Freiheit).
Michael Barrett and I were with our two idols on only one occasion: a concert at Alice Tully Hall in February of 1988. We were putting on an early celebration of Bernstein’s 70th birthday, which wasn’t actually until August—we wanted to get our tribute in before anyone else did. Dawn Upshaw led the proceedings off with “I Hate Music,” and before the applause started we heard the maestro’s distinctive rumble of approval, “Good!” Linda Lavin sang and danced “Swing,” from Wonderful Town, Comden and Green did their hilarious parody lyrics of “Lonely Town,” and at the very last minute, we snagged Bolcom and Morris, who were about to board a plane back to Ann Arbor, to come back into town and perform “What a Movie!,” Dinah’s aria from Trouble in Tahiti.
Joan’s interpretation of this old favorite was different from any than I had ever seen. Most singers get wilder and wilder as the scene progresses, tearing up the stage and acting out every scene of the B-movie the song describes. Joanie went the opposite route—she sang with full energy, but she got progressively more still, staring at an imaginary movie screen and losing herself entirely in fantasy. Where others explode, she imploded. We saw the real Dinah—a lonely, unhappy woman clinging to the silver screen as an escape.
Bill started out on good behavior, honoring all of Bernstein’s written rhythms and harmonies. But around page 5, he suddenly substituted a jazzy Bill Evans-ish chord for the Bernstein original. Michael and I looked at each other with shock, horror, alarm—and delight. We half expected the floor of Tully Hall to open and swallow up the piano. Soon more Bolcom emendations followed. With Bernstein sitting fifty feet away, each of the younger composer’s rewrites hit Michael and me with the force of an electric shock.
Bernstein was warm to Joan and Bill after the performance, with no mention of Bill’s creative reharmonizations. “He came up to me, grabbed my cheeks, and shook my face, like an aggressive Jewish uncle,” Bolcom recalled. “He told me, ‘Yeah, I heard that little ensemble problem on the first page, but you guys got back on—because you spend so much time in bed together.’” Bernstein went on to praise Bill’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience—“Oh, it made me cry. And you did something I wish I’d done in my Mass—you gave people a pee break.”
A year later, Lenny would be celebrating the end of the Cold War on international television, and a few months after that, he would leave this earth. But that night, my own internal Berlin Wall came down as I heard Bolcom have his way with Bernstein’s music. To hear one of my idols joyously toy with the music of another idol—at Lincoln Center!—opened my mind more than any book, any Norton Lecture, any master class could have done. I’m not done learning from these two giants; I’m not done playing their songs. And I’m not done loving and appreciating them with all my heart.