William Bolcom, composer
Composer has high praise for soloist Gil Shaham
by Robert Everett-Green
Toronto Globe and Mail, Saturday, June 6, 2009
Every composer knows the bitter irony of the “world premiere” that turns out to be the last performance. This is probably no more common than in the 18th century, yet every so often someone in the scene frets publicly about how much recent music will “last,” as if posterity were the only judge of what should matter to us now.
William Bolcom's Concerto in D for Violin and Orchestra is still finding new audiences 25 years after its premiere. I ran into Bolcom in the lobby before the first Canadian performance, by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on Wednesday, and he was able to name four or five good violinists who play the piece, including Sergiu Luca (who recorded it) and Gil Shaham, the evening's soloist.
Since I can't pick up the phone and call posterity, I'll take the interest of those violinists as a pretty good sign that Bolcom's concerto has legs. As the pianist and critic Charles Rosen likes to say, Mahler's symphonies crept into the classical canon not because the public demanded to hear them, but because musicians insisted on playing them.
Like much of Bolcom's music, the concerto is a big-tent piece that offers something to satisfy just about anyone's criteria for what a concerto should be. There's some meaty bravura stuff for the soloist (and an endless adagio melody too), lots of drama and dashes of humour. But Bolcom isn't writing to order: He expresses his own interests fully. Just when you think you know what he's doing, he changes the rules, slips into a different manner, finds a new way to surprise you.
His American feeling for rhythm came out right at the start of the opening fantasia, in which the violin sang freely over a simple three-note vamp. Ragtime rhythm dominated the final movement, a scampish rondo with a soft-shoe interlude. Bolcom showed his European side (he studied with Darius Milhaud) when the first movement turned dryly ironic, eventually gliding into a bittersweet accelerating waltz.
The middle movement was for me the most impressive, with a sombre opening brass chorale (given a raw, reedy edge by the contrabassoon) that flowed into the lower strings to support a stricken, slow-moving melody in the violin. This movement was an elegy for Paul Jacobs, a wonderful pianist who died while Bolcom was writing the piece. It would have been hard to miss the biblical overtones of the repeated high trumpet calls, or the stepwise ascent in the harp near the music's peaceful conclusion.
The concerto was sprinkled with memorable scoring ideas, such as the timbral punning of muted trombones and clarinets in the first movement, and the second movement's echoes of the solo part on xylophone and piccolo trumpet. The piece sauntered toward the final double-bar with a clever thematic revision of the opening three-note vamp.
Shaham made the concerto sound as though it had been written for him, with sympathetic support from conductor Leonard Slatkin and the TSO. There was also a lot of fine solo and ensemble playing in Berlioz's endlessly surprising Overture to Benvenuto Cellini , and in Brahms's Symphony No. 1 .
But I found a lot of uncompleted thoughts in the performance of the Brahms, and not enough connection between musical causes and effects. After the tremendous opening, with its pulsing timpani beats and Icarian ascent in the violins, the music seemed driven to varying degree by the inertia of everyone's prior knowledge of what came next. For me, it was like walking through a beloved old house, looking into all the rooms without being shown anything new.
The TSO repeats the symphonic parts of this program tonight, with violinist Joshua Bell performing Lalo's Symphonie espagnole instead of the Bolcom concerto.