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William Bolcom: Soneto de la dulce queja

I’ve spent the fall with the music of William Bolcom and John Corigliano, who are the leading men in my Juilliard concert this January. They are each about to turn 80 next year, which strikes me as impossible. How could two such fiery renegades be octogenarians?

John Corigliano has been a valued friend for several decades, and it’s always a pleasure to spend time with him. My association with Bill goes back even farther, to the mid-1970s when I met him and Joan Morris after a Tully Hall concert. That 1976 recital pretty much set the course for the rest of my life. They offered a brilliant survey of American popular song, spanning the 100 years from the Civil War Days to songs that had just been written. Joan was somehow able to show us what the song used to be, what the song meant in a modern context, and—this was her genius—the eternal truth of the song. How she accomplished this three-tiered performance is a mystery. It was her own unique mix of ironic distance and total investment, naiveté layered on top of professional command, that lifted her art to the heavens. (And that remains true of Joanie.)

Bill has a Rabelaisian appetite for music of all kinds, and an ecumenical respect for an astonishing range of genres. For many people, Leonard Bernstein was their sainted pathfinder. Lenny was very important in my life too. Early exposure to the “Young People’s Concerts” awakened me to music’s subtleties and possibilities. But Bolcom was my real role model: a powerful collaborative pianist, an equal opportunity composer (12-tone, tango, neo-classical, ragtime), a truth-teller. Shambling and sharp, gentle and demanding, an inspiring study in contrasts.

I am especially excited to be revisiting Bolcom’s Lorca songs, this time with tenor Matthew Pearce and guitarist Jack Guglielmetti. The combination of the great Spanish poet (one of my favorites), the modes and rhythms of Spanish and Caribbean music, and the chaotic brilliance of William Bolcom make for pure musical combustion.

Here’s “Soneto de la dulce queja,” in a recording by tenor René Barbera, with Carl St. Clair conducting.

William Bolcom: Lorca Songs

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

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