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William Bolcom: Soneto de la dulce queja

I faced a quandary when I was programming the April 24 Lorca concert. Though I try to avoid presenting songs I’ve done in recent concerts, I couldn’t find many suitable examples of cante jondo—the “deep song” of Andalusia that Lorca venerated. He disdained the word “flamenco,” which he called the “tourist version” of cante jondo. But for an American listener the two terms are roughly equivalent, especially in this day and age. Recordings of cante jondo are of course in plentiful supply. What’s almost impossible is finding songs in this style appropriate for the recital stage and classically trained singers. They aren’t built to replicate the sound of flamenco, which is as rough, wide-open, and unmediated as rock ’n’ roll—a scream of pain.

William Bolcom filled the bill when he set a Lorca poem, “Soneto de la dulce queja,” to the cadences of flamenco, complete with wild bravura vocal flourishes accompanied by an ostinato guitar pattern. Bolcom had written his nine-movement Lorca cycle at the request of tenor Plácido Domingo, who even picked out most of the poetry for the cycle. Said the composer, ““I spoke nothing but subway Spanish. But I studied, steeped myself in it. And I listened to flamenco, that raw, almost terrifying outpouring of soul. I heard the rhythm of flamenco in Lorca’s poetry. And that way the tunes inherent in the words began to emerge.” Bolcom had to jump through a few hoops with the Lorca family, who were aware that the poems were just about to move into public domain and wanted their final piece of the action. At the eleventh hour a wealthy donor stepped in and they were able to seal the deal.

Bolcom is rightfully proud of the way he was able to capture the essence of cante jondo. The magic of this song is the three-part nature of the score: a wailing, plaintive vocal line, a hangdog guitar lick rising and falling like the sigh of a man unhappily smitten with love, and the surrealistic chords in the orchestra—or, in our version, the duo-piano. Bolcom’s harmonies are so widely spaced that it takes two players to sound all the notes, and you don’t want to miss a single one of those opulent, sexy chords.

We’ve offered the “Soneto” twice before in recent years: with Theo Lebow in Letters from Spain, and with Matt Pearce and guitarist Jack Gulielmetti in our Bolcom/Corigliano tribute at Juilliard. Both sang it superbly. But this will be our first time with a Spanish-speaking singer, Efraín Solís, and I am very excited to see what he and guitarist Oren Fader bring to this magical piece of music.

René Barbera, with Carl St. Clair conducting the Pacific Symphony

Soneto de la dulce queja (“Sonnet of the sweet complaint”)
Music by William Bolcom (b. 1938); poem by Lorca

No me dejes perder la maravilla
de tus ojos de estatua, ni el acento
que de noche me pone en la mejilla
la solitaria rosa de tu aliento.

Tengo miedo de ser en esta orilla
tronco sin ramas; y lo que más siento
es no tener la flor, pulpa o arcilla,
para el gusano de mi sufrimiento.

Si tú eres el tesoro oculto mío,
si eres mi cruz y mi dolor mojado,
si soy el perro de tu señorío,

no me dejes perder lo que he ganado
y decora las ramas de tu río
con hojas de mi otoño enajenado.

Do not let me lose the marvel
Of your sculpted eyes, nor the light touch
That it places on my cheek at night,
The solitary rose of your breathing.

I have a fear of finding myself on this shore
A branchless tree-trunk; and what I fear more
Is not having the flower, pith, or clay
To feed the worm of my suffering.

If you are my hidden treasure,
If you are my cross and my tear-stained sadness,
If I am the dog and you the master,

Do not let me lose what I have won,
And embellish the branches of your river
With leaves of my maddened autumn.

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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