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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.

Song of the Day: November 27

Steven Blier (photo Liv Hoffman)NYFOS is celebrating our co-founder Steven Blier this week! In honor of his birthday on November 25, each Song of the Day post this week will be a tribute to him.  Happy Birthday, Steve!  We hope you enjoy these and have a wonderful week!

Today’s post comes from longtime friends of NYFOS composer William Bolcom and singing actress Joan Morris. Joan is up first:

Steve Blier has been our dear friend for so many years.  I first worked with him when he coached me in the role of Polly for The Beggar’s Opera done at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Steve’s friend Alvin Epstein was running it and asked Bill to complete the score that Bill’s teacher Darius Milhaud had partly arranged from the John Gay 1728 compilation of well-known tunes of his time. (Only one of those tunes shows up in The Threepenny Opera, by the way.)

Steve also coached me for the premiere and recording of Bill’s Fourth Symphony, conducted by Leonard Slatkin, and showed such painstaking patience and support during our work sessions.  I began my career as an actress and began serious musical work later in life so that many things didn’t come easily to me, especially working in so-called ‘serious music.’  Because of Steve refining my abilities and taking care that I honored every musical value, I was able to be confident when I got up in front of the audience.

And Steve was always a pleasure to hang out with.  We shared many silly jokes and gossip and stories during those rehearsals. Much later Bill and I were lucky to work with NYFOS on several occasions, plus I admired and learned a lot from Steve’s elegant program notes on the composers and lyricists they featured.

Here’s Bill:  In 1969 Alvin Epstein, Martha Schlamme, and I began a run of a Kurt Weill evening originally put together by Alvin and the pianist Will Holt.  After our first showing at Yale, we went on to small theaters in New York, and very soon after I met Steve when he took over the piano reins; I was struck by his resourcefulness and strong theatrical sense.  In 1978 when Joan played Polly at the Guthrie, Steve was very much around; our duo Bolcom & Morris was at its hottest then, and not long after NYFOS would be born with the idea of drawing from classical and popular music sources in the same evening.

In retrospect it all seems like a natural growth, but at the time what we did was nothing short of revolutionary.  Both Steve and I pioneered the idea of the pianist speaking to the audience about the songs as we performed them, and Steve’s notes for the NYFOS programs would continue the idea of informing the audience in an engaging way—he is a wonderful writer!

NYFOS’s approach has energized the often-moribund voice recital for so many years, and Joan and I are extremely proud of him.  But more than that, Joan and I sing in chorus when we say, “Love you, Stevie!” and “Happy Birthday!”

Best, Bill & Joan

For one of our favorite people, here are some of our favorite things:

(“Three Penny Things” performed by Bill and Joan)

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