William Bolcom is my musical godfather. I’ve known him since the late 1970s—Alvin Epstein introduced us after one of their Tully Hall concerts. When I met Bill’s wife Joan Morris I said, “Oh you were so wonderful this evening—but I am sure you must be tired of hearing that from everyone.” And she said, “Oh, actually…no. Try me.” We bonded instantly.
Bill and I have been buddies for decades, but somehow we had never been alone together until a few years ago. This changed one day when he asked me out to dinner when he was in town for a weekend. The next day he took me another one-on-one date—to go hear Thomas Adès’s “The Tempest” at the Met, heard from the best seats in the house. (Those orchestra seats helped a lot, by the way. So did Bill’s simultaneously gimlet-eyed and respectful analysis of the score’s intricacies.) It was odd, and wonderful, and heartening to have Bill to myself after so many decades of parties, rehearsals, musicales, movie dates, dinners, and drives with other people. He was shocked to learn that it had taken us 39 years to have our first tête-à-tête—“No, that can’t be true!”—and it’s true that Bill’s nervous energy and fast-twitch mind are an odd pairing with my “Deep River,” contemplative nature. But what a treat to have my mentor to myself for two days in a row.
Bolcom has been a guiding light in my life ever since my late teen years. He sees beauty and importance in all kinds of music—vaudeville tunes, piano works by Albéniz, weird-ass modern stuff—and is unjudgmental about genres. He’s kept the wild spirit of the 1960s and 70s alive, and it has been my rocket fuel ever since. I never studied with him formally, but I felt I went to the University of Bill just by being around him, going to his concerts, and playing his music.
A few years ago Bill gave us permission to perform his “Lorca Songs” on two pianos, with tenor Theo Lebow. The so-called orchestral reduction is still a handful—well, four handfuls, to be precise—since Bill includes everything in his piano scores. “The pianist can make the decision what to leave out,” he said. Michael and I lunged at it with some success, thought it was literally a white-knuckle experience every time. I loved these songs so much it hurt. They brought together three things that are close to my heart: the poetry of Fernando García Lorca, the sounds and rhythms of flamenco and Cuban jazz, and the fertile energy of William Bolcom. Performing those songs was like being on a tilt-a-whirl run by a maniac. I loved it.
Here are two of the songs in their original orchestrations, sung by the beautiful tenor René Barbera, with Carl St. Clair conducting the Pacific Symphony.
El poeta llega a la Habana
I couldn’t do a week of American song blogs without featuring my friend John Musto. I first heard him at a memorial concert for Paul Jacobs, who had been my piano teacher for a little while. John was playing a duo-piano piece (Schubert, I think) that night. Both guys played beautifully, but there was something special in John’s sound and phrasing that resonated in my soul. I struck up a conversation with him at the party afterwards, and we soon became friends and colleagues. We’re both dyed-in-the-wool New Yorkers, and somehow the contrasts in our personalities helped to forge a bond between us.
I hold John in very high esteem: he is a master of the piano, and he is one of the most intelligent people I know. Since our meeting in 1984 he has established himself a leading composer and take-no-hostages soloist and chamber music player. On the occasions when we play duo-concerts I feel like John’s little piano-brother, taken by the hand, indulged and coddled by a trustworthy adult.
John has written lots of wonderful songs, but since we’re playing favorites this week, here is the one I love the most: “Penelope’s Song” from the song cycle “Penelope.” She waits for Odysseus’s return while half-heartedly entertaining suitors who are certain she is a wealthy widow. She has told them that she’ll choose one when she is done with her spinning, but every night she undoes the work she accomplished during the day—keeping them at bay indefinitely. What she most loves is this complex state of limbo: married, and courted, and anticipating a reunion with Odysseus—but for the moment, enjoying all the time she has to herself, time to dream. “I’m in love with beginnings,” she sighs. “Don’t hurry home.”
John’s music is like a stoned 12-bar blues, full of gentle syncopations and subtle changes of meter. It sounds lulling and relaxed, although it is actually a very hard song to master because of its irregularities—and its long-held high note at the end. John’s wife Amy Burton nails it every time, and made this beautiful recording with her husband at the piano.
I’ve become friends with my British colleague Julius Drake. John Brancy introduced us a few years ago, and I am always touched that Julius makes sure to see me when he’s in town. I admire him very much as an artist, and have taken to sending him occasional emails when I am practicing. The mere idea of his presence—my inner Julius, I guess you’d call it—calms me and guides me at the piano. Julius has the career I thought I wanted when I was starting out, jetting around playing Schubert and Wolf for the great Lieder singers of our time. It turned out not to be what I was put on earth to do, but I admire the guys who devote their lives to keeping the standard repertoire alive (while I explore its beautiful fringes). And no one plays with more eloquence than Julius.
He came by at cocktail hour and I was all set to have a glass of wine and some marconas with him. But we ended up drinking seltzer together—Thursday is one of Julius’ low-calorie days, apparently. We spoke of our work, of course, and he eventually asked me which American composers I admired. “I find a lot of your music lovely but a bit sentimental,” he said. I asked which songwriters he came across the most often in England, and he mentioned two musicians whose songs rarely cross my music rack. I’m not a big fan of either, though I am far too much of a gentleman to specify their names. But I could see why he thought American music had a strain of treacle.
I play the music of my country all the time, but I was strangely at a loss when I had to give a list of composers. I managed to say, “Well, I think John Musto is a terrific composer.” “Oh, is he good?” “Um, yes. Very. And I am a fan of William Bolcom.” Julius said, “Oh, of course. Tends to be on the light side, I find.” “No, not really. Look again.”
I shocked myself by not being able to spout a list of go-to American songwriters. I think that is because I think in terms of specific songs, not composers. I love this, rather than I love him or her.
I happen to be working on an all-American program this week, and I want to redress the confusion I experienced when I was speaking to Julius Drake by focusing on American songs. Here’s a favorite: “O Boundless, Boundless Evening,” by Samuel Barber, from his final vocal work simply called 3 Songs, Opus 45. It was written for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and premiered in 1974 at Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. All three poems are English translations of European poems. This song, the final one, springs from Christopher Middleton’s version of Georg Heym’s “O weiter, weiter Abend.” The deep blues depicted in the words morph into bluesy chords in the piano, forming one of Barber’s richest and most sensual songs. As night inexorably falls and the sky morphs from azure to cobalt, the speaker tries to get every bit of pleasure out of the last bits of light. These are my favorite colors, and this is one of my favorite songs.
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