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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: An Admirer

To celebrate NYFOS’s 30th Anniversary Season, Song of the Day is featuring some selections from our commercial recordings, along with excerpts from the notes that accompanied them. Inspired by last week’s celebration of William Bolcom at our NYFOS@Juilliard concert, here is an excerpt from Steven Blier’s program notes for Bastianello and Lucrezia, NYFOS’s double bill of comic operas, commissioned from composers John Musto and William Bolcom, with libretti by Mark Campbell. 

Although Bastianello’s libretto was the first to be written, the first music we received was the score to Lucrezia. This Machiavelli classic was the second idea Bill and Mark had for their opera; they initially considered a play by Johann Nestroy called The Talisman, about a town with a prejudice against redheads. But they both felt it would need more than one act and a larger cast to work. Machiavelli’s La Mandragola was Mark’s next idea, and he eventually convinced Bill that the idea had legs. “I liked it because it was centered around a woman,” Bill told me, “and (in our version) a woman who comes out on top. I had only one proviso: I wanted to set it in Argentina.” Why? “Well, I wanted to write a zarzuela…as imagined by the Marx Brothers.” I wondered if Bill was aware of how much Spanish and Latin American music NYFOS has programmed over the last two decades—and if he knew of our programs dedicated to Spanish light opera. “Oh! No. Well, that’s a plus, then!”

Indeed, Lucrezia melds the smoldering musical worlds of Astor Piazzolla, Osvaldo Golijov, Federico Moreno Torroba, and Enrique Granados with the comic sensibility of an American screwball comedy. In Lucrezia, Bill and Mark created something I have longed for: the first zarzuela packed wall to wall with great tunes and great jokes. Having played so much Latin music, I was aware of the many styles Bill used in this score—and not all of them Spanish. The overture recalls Raymond Scott, the genius of American cartoon soundtracks. But soon there are Lecuona-style tangos (Lorenzo’s first aria), then fierce Andalusian bullfight music (the duet for Ignacio and Chucho), elegant scenes that recall Granados at his most refined (the final duet for Lorenzo and Lucrezia), scintillating waltzes à la Rosenkavalier (the duet for Annunciata and Lucrezia), fiery jotas (Lucrezia’s “potion aria”), a section that I could swear is a sly tribute to Ned Rorem (the beginning of the bedroom scene), gestures that recall Rossini and Verdi, and an hommage to James Brown. Throughout, there are wonderful harmonies redolent of American jazz.

I commented to Bill that his evocation of Argentina had a lot of Spain in it. He explained, “No, the piece is neither intrinsically Argentinean nor Spanish. All those cultures shared their dance rhythms, there was always a lot of trading around. Tangos and habaneras started in Cuba and quickly migrated everywhere. I’m not into the authenticity of it—I’m into the fun of it.” Bill saw Lucrezia as part of a larger tradition. “I once saw some Yiddish operettas—I couldn’t understand all the words, but the situations were the same as in all light entertainments: mothers and daughters, marriages, philandering guys. They were hugely enjoyable, and that’s what I wanted.” — Steven Blier

Lucrezia’s aria “An Admirer”, sung by Sasha Cooke

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, composer

william-bolcom

Our very first Artist of the Month is a longtime friend of NYFOS:  Pulitzer Prize-winning composer William Bolcom. He answers our questions about song, singers, and his history with Steve in advance of our NYFOS@Juilliard concert in celebration of his 80th birthday. 


Steven Blier has mentioned you and Joan as one of his inspirations when he founded NYFOS. Can you tell us about your first experiences working with Steve?  

In the late 70s Joan was hired to play Polly in a Guthrie Theatre production of A Beggars’ Opera, done while Alvin Epstein ran the place and they were together in Minneapolis. About that time I had been working with Alvin and Martha Schlamme doing a Kurt Weill evening, and Steve inherited the job and went much further with it than I had. We’ve been close ever since. He coached my wife Joan Morris in my 4th Symphony on Roethke’s “The Rose” in 1987.

You had a very diverse musical education, both formal and informal.

I take it you mean conservatory-style and outside, and I was always interested in everything

Is there any particular experience that had an outsize impact on your life; that was a greater influence on your work than you had expected?

In 1966 I taught briefly at the University of Washington School of music, where I’d been as a young 11-year-old and didn’t want to be there as an oldster of 28 — but I needed the job. I used to go to hear him whenever John Cage came back to Seattle, where he had been booted out from Cornish College. The regular profs at U-W loved to walk out in a huff whenever he came, and I was sometimes the only one left (at age 13) in the audience. Finally as a young prof in 1965 I was asked to interview him for a local Pacifica station, and as I left to go, an old colleague said “now you go out there and demolish him!” We talked for three hours. I was conflicted then: was I going to be an avant-garde hardliner (which was the thing to do) or was I going to be more comprehensive in my stylistic outlook? In the midst of the third hour he asked me about my problems as a composer and I mentioned my conflict. He said, “some people divide the world into things that are good and things that are bad. Others take it all in and let the inner organism decide.” That opened my eyes and heart. It was probably my landmark experience. Meeting and working with Eubie Blake was another, and I’m grateful for my long association with Darius Milhaud.

You are known for working closely with certain singers:  Joan Morris, of course, and others like Catherine Malfitano. How has that influenced your compositional process?

Very much. I love singers most of all, possibly because I can’t sing.

Who are some of your favorite singers (of the past or present day) that you wish you had the opportunity to write for or to work with?

I loved Di Stefano, and Fred Astaire, and Mabel Mercer, and Catherine and and and…  where shall I begin?   Joan Morris is for me the ultimate singing actress (I’m prejudiced a little of course) because she balances word and note better than anyone.

Are there any popular musicians of today that you listen to or who you think are doing interesting work?

I’m not really up on them now. Most strike me as personalities rather than artists. Too much self-promotion now, and it is even being taught in music schools — ugh!

What was the last music you listened to before answering these questions?

The last performance of my latest opera Dinner at Eight, just done here at the University of Michigan four times, and well done too.

When you aren’t making music, what is your favorite way to spend your time?

Reading

NYFOS is devoted to ‘song’ and the wide variety of styles that term encompasses. What is special about ‘song’ to you? Is there anything about this particular form that is significant to you?  

What isn’t?  If it’s alive I’m on it.

What is your favorite song?  (Qualify your answer to this possibly impossible question as needed.)

It is impossible. Forgive me if I don’t answer.

William Bolcom: Song of Black Max

As I began to think of some of the songs that I love, my mind immediately gravitated to multiple pieces from the cabaret songs of William Bolcom. Within these volumes of songs, “Black Max” (as it is most commonly known), has always stuck out as a favorite. It during my time at The Juilliard School, in a coaching with Steve Blier, that Black Max truly came alive to me. Steve has a close relationship with William Bolcom and so has the inside scoop on many of his compositions. It was in that coaching that I learned that this story, written by Arnold Weinstein, was actually based on a true recollection of Willem de Kooning (de Kooning, along with other painters of the post-WWII era, became informally referred to as the de Kooning Boys). During his time in Amsterdam, de Kooning often heard stories of the illusive man, known on the streets as Black Max. Rarely did one encounter this mysterious figure, but the stories of his actions were well known by the town.

Weinstein is brilliant at painting a picture of the environment, time period, and characters in every story he tells. As you listen to this piece, you can’t help but be transported by the text. He puts you in a world that’s dark, red, foggy, gritty, and splattered with the remnants of Black Max’s influence.

William Bolcom: Song of Black Max (As told by the de Kooning Boys)

William Bolcom: Ballad of the landlord

“Ballad of the landlord” is a poem by Langston Hughes. It basically is a dialogue between an African American tenant and a white landlord. It’s interesting to me that Langston doesn’t offer any opinions. He tell’s the story as it happens and the reader/ listener has no choice but to develop their own opinion. This poem was set to music by composer William Bolcom in 2002 as part of his cycle “Old Addresses”. Musically, Bolcom marries the worlds of classical singing with soul and even hip hop. This piece was given to me by American Song specialist Paul Sperry at the Manhattan School of Music. If you want to see a live performance of “Ballad of the landlord”, I will be singing this piece on my debut recital at Carnegie on October 9 at 8pm.

William Bolcom: Paula’s Aria

It’s been a very busy winter at NYFOS. Tchaikovsky, Paul Bowles (A Picnic Cantata), Gabe Kahane, Bill Bolcom, and the Juilliard Protest program. Steve Blier jetted off to UCLA to work with the students and Peter Kazaris. Opera America asked us to help with their Bill Bolcom conversation just a few days ago. I grabbed it, knowing it would be great to see Bill and Joan Morris again, and that it would be a really good chance for our singers to meet the composer and get some coaching from him.

Certainly one of our most successful living opera composers, Bolcom has an amazing way of writing arias that sound really American, and still sound like Grand Opera. I hear jazz chords, the blues, and american musical gestures which I don’t have a name for. And it is all somehow spun into soaring operatic melody.

Here are “Paula’s Aria” from the just premiered Dinner at Eight (libretto by Mark Campbell) sung by Amy Owens, followed by “But You Do Not Know This Man” (Catherine’s Aria) from A View From The Bridge (libretto by Arthur Miller and Arnold Weinstein) sung by Mikaela Bennett. Both arias are sung by young women who believe they have the key to helping that flawed man in their lives. Through the power and determination of their love, they will get the failing object of their affection to wake up, correct their ways, and live happily ever after. Of course, neither girl in their heart of hearts thinks it will work. Bill’s music tells you that, as do these two beautiful performances.  Leann Osterkamp is with me at the piano.

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.

Alba


El poeta llega a la Habana

Picnic Cantata / Dinner at Eight

Notes on the Program by Steven Blier for Picnic Cantata / Dinner at Eight
February 21, 2017 at Merkin Concert Hall. Buy tickets here >

SIX PACKETS OF OATMEAL

In the past several seasons, NYFOS has been lucky enough to present three songs cycles by Gabriel Kahane: Craigslistlieder, The Memory Palace, and Three Vernacular Songs. Lucky is not a word I use lightly. In his early years as a composer, Gabe was usually both the singer and the pianist for his own songs, and he excels at both tasks. The brash Craiglistlieder were a splashy début success in 2006, tapping into a cultural moment with immaculate timing. He described them as “a pastiche that opened a lot of doors for me.” One of the doors they opened was mine.

My friend Charlotte Dobbs had spoken to me several times about her friend Gabriel Kahane, and one afternoon she gently insisted on inviting him to join us for tea. Gabe showed up wearing an outrageously oversized pair of white-framed sunglasses, which I later came to understand were “ironic” white sunglasses. Without any fanfare, Gabe sidled up to my piano and sang through the entire score of Craigslistlieder. I’d never heard anything like it before, and I must admit that I was speechless when he was done. The piano parts alone are a tremendous technical challenge, and the vocal line ranges freely from counter-tenor to bass-baritone depths. Could anyone else ever hope to perform them, or did they belong only to their creator?

Gradually Craigslistlieder entered my own repertoire via a series of wonderful baritones—first David McFerrin, who had a special way with “Neurotic and Lonely”; then Chad Sloane at Wolf Trap (still my favorite “Assless Chaps”); and then Andrew Garland and Theo Hoffman—each of them vivid, daring, hilarious, and heartbreaking in his own way.

Gabriel Kahane (b. 1981) comes by his musical talent honestly. His father is the pianist/conductor Jeffrey Kahane. Gabe has been deeply versed in classical music since he was an infant, but he has equally deep roots in folk, rock, and jazz—and equal respect for them. The list of credits for this young man is nothing short of humbling. He’s written a musical for the New York Public Theater, accompanied bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff in European recitals, fulfilled commissions for the Kronos Quartet and the L.A. Philharmonic, and jammed with the likes of Rufus Wainwright and Elvis Costello. In 2014, his major label debut, The Ambassadors, was cited by Rolling Stone as “one of the year’s very best albums.” He was the first composer-in-residence with Orpheus. And last year, after performances with over half a dozen orchestras across the country, he released Crane Palimpsest, in a recording with the Brooklyn-based chamber orchestra The Knights.

Kahane’s style has developed a great deal since Craigslistlieder. The Memory Palace, a compilation of five early songs, premiered at NYFOS in 2011. Gabe described those pieces as “the beginning of my finding a musical language that I felt that I could speak. It is like my Opus 1.” Its musical idioms straddle blues, German art song, and an array of 21st century styles blended into something unique, original, and emotionally complex. “I have tried to figure out if I am writing pastiche Schubert songs, only in English. But then I think of this quote from György Ligeti, whose music I adore: ‘Anything that is truly new is just two extant things that haven’t been combined before.’ So—what if I take this gesture from music that is 150 years old, and marry it to the way we sing popular music now?”

Kahane continues to blossom. His 2016 album The Fiction Issue demonstrated a new kind of austerity, with more angular vocal writing, briefer musical sections, and more detail in its instrumental commentary. When I received the score for tonight’s piece, Six Packets of Oatmeal, Gabe was not surprised when I observed that it seemed to be continuing down the path of The Fiction Issue. “But the music springs directly from the poetry.

And the poem? “I was at the MacDowell Colony in 2010, working on a setting of a Galway Kinnell poem, ‘Little Sleep’s Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight.’ That’s when I learned about his poem ‘Oatmeal,” which he’d written there. It is standard for the artists at the MacDowell to come together at suppertime after a day of writing or composing, but it seems Kinnell divided his lunch into two portions and ate the second half of it for dinner—alone. There is beautiful humor in the poem, but it is really about the painful solitude of being an artist. And his loneliness is behind the creative act of making up mealtime companions.”

“Little Sleep’s Head” is intense and opulent, written for piano, cello, and Gabe’s own voice wailing and murmuring into a microphone. “Oatmeal” is more chant-like, making use of piano sonorities other than the usual hammer striking the strings. “Those sounds get you into a space that is less secular, more other-worldly, quasi-religious. It evokes the kind of isolation that Kinnell seemed to favor. I received a phone call from his widow—I’d written a letter asking for the rights to the poem, but hadn’t received a response. She described their kitchen table, littered with two year’s worth of mail, on which she had only recently discovered my letter. It had been sent months, if not years, earlier. The Kinnells took the world in slowly.”

While Kahane’s music is beginning to turn up on recital programs and cabaret shows, “Oatmeal” is one of the few pieces that he’s actually written for another singer to premiere. It led him to consider the piano writing carefully. “There are certain sonorities that read very beautifully on the guitar, but when played on the piano they sound sentimental, too emotionally direct. Similarly, when writing vocal music for someone with operatic training and not the unadorned mike style I use, questions of functional harmony arise. I want to avoid anything that reads as pastiche.” He was also thinking about the acoustical ambience of concert halls. “Context determines how we receive a piece of music. The austerity in ‘Six Packets’ stems from a concern about the innate romanticism of the trained voice in tandem with certain kinds of familiar harmony. The leanness of the piano writing, combined with the plucked strings and the harmonics, should spur the singer to a slightly sparer, less trained sound. The soloist won’t have to project over a thick accompaniment.”

The music of Six Packets of Oatmeal gently runs the gamut, from the grooving popular style of the fourth song to the twelve-tone row that begins in #2 and is heard complete in #6. “Ultimately I get out of the way and let the poem guide me,” said Kahane. The result is a delicate portrait of Galway Kinnell, a gifted artist who led a hermetic life. Written around the time of the 2016 election, it is as much of a response to our times as the brash Craigslistlieder was to the burgeoning age of social media.

DINNER AT EIGHT

I first encountered William Bolcom in the early 1970s through his piano recordings on Nonesuch—several dapper albums of ragtime, including a few of his own pieces, and his groundbreaking LPs of Tin Pan Alley songs where he accompanied his wife Joan Morris. I was smitten. Here was a classical musician with an impressive pedigree—hell, he’d studied with Milhaud and Messaien, he could even write twelve-tone music. But he respected American popular song as much as I did. When I first heard Bolcom and Morris live in 1977, I left the hall fired up with a new, clear purpose in life: I wanted to give song concerts as vital, as stimulating, as surprising as my two idols. After an eleven-year gestation period, NYFOS was finally born in 1988. In my mind, Joan and Bill are its godparents.

Bill is the Hippie-King of classical music—a counter-cultural outsider mixing genres like a stoned bartender. In his magnum opus, the William Blake cantata called Songs of Innocence and of Experience, he tossed country and western, rock, blues, and reggae numbers together with sections reminiscent of Mahler and Berg, neoclassicism, atonal music, and folk songs. Bill was also an early advocate of Brazilian and Argentinean music—which proved to be another linchpin of my artistic life. Freely mixing every kind of tonality and atonality with the cadences of popular styles and dance rhythms, Bolcom flouted all doctrines, received wisdoms, trends, and fashions.

But it took him many years to get around to opera. When I first knew Bill in the late 1970s, he demonstrated a marked disdain for classical singing, although he’d done his time as a vocal répétiteur in his early years. (“Maybe that was the cause of the disdain,” he muttered.) He couldn’t understand why opera professionals continued to study voice throughout their careers—“Haven’t they learned how to sing by now?” he would ask—and tended to characterize the full-throated cry of a soprano as “inexpressive.” Like Sondheim, he preferred the dryer verbal and emotional clarity of actors to the opulent roar of highly trained voices. Bolcom’s transition from the cowboy of classical music (which is how I always thought of him) to the guru of classical music (which is closer to his current status) began in 1984 with Songs of Innocence and of Experience. It was simply too big and too good to be ignored. I first heard it at BAM, the New York theater that is so “downtown” it’s all the way in Brooklyn. When the oratorio came to Carnegie Hall a year or so later, the evening seemed like a coronation for the Hippie-King.

I think that writing Songs of Innocence and of Experience, which included difficult, extended sections for operatic voices, must have started to open Bolcom’s mind to the new trends in classical singing. Bill was becoming aware that opera singers in the late twentieth century had developed far greater acting skills than the “park-and-bark” school that had prevailed through the 1950s and 60s—not to mention far more natural English diction. “After all, how many other singers from that time can you count—besides Evelyn Lear—whose English you could understand?” he commented.

Bolcom’s first high-profile solo piece for a classical singer was the song cycle I Will Breathe a Mountain, written for Marilyn Horne and Martin Katz and premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1992. I was not used to seeing Bill in such formal surroundings. The pre-show Q&A on Carnegie’s august stage seemed like a very late bar mitzvah for this normally informal artist. By this time he had already been invited to write his first opera for the Chicago Lyric (McTeague, 1992), followed in rapid succession by two more commissions from the Lyric, A View from the Bridge (1999) and A Wedding (2004). All of them had libretti by Arnold Weinstein, who had been Bolcom’s literary partner since 1960. Arnold’s words had also fueled Bill’s three “actor’s operas” Dynamite Tonight, Greatshot, and Casino Paradise as well as his four-plus books of cabaret songs. When Arnold died in 2005, I worried that Bill’s interest in opera might die with his collaborator of 45 years.

But I had a plan. As a result of a whopping fine levied against a number of New York radio stations, the New York State Music fund was soliciting projects from artists and presenters throughout the state. Suddenly NYFOS had a very promising opportunity for a commission. I had the crazy idea of mounting two new one-act operas—comedies—scored for duo-piano. I knew that we would ask composer John Musto for one of them. His regular librettist at that time was Mark Campbell, and I hoped that I could arrange a marriage, or at least a first date, between Campbell and Bolcom.

The result was the 2008 double bill Bastianello (Musto) and Lucrezia (Bolcom), the first a wry, philosophical Italian folk tale, the other a no-holds-barred sex farce set as an Argentinean zarzuela. As our then-Executive Director Elizabeth Hurwitt said, “One is a morality play, and the other is an immorality play.” Mark and Bill enjoyed their collaboration very much and became good friends. Tonight we shall sample a suite of songs and arias from their latest work, Dinner at Eight, prior to its premiere this March at Minnesota Opera.

I spoke to both creators about the project, which is is based on the 1932 play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. “Arnold and I had talked about making an opera out of Dinner at Eight some years ago. Then I forgot all about it until I saw the movie again—in 2008.“ Bill brought the idea to Mark, who told me, “It was a smart idea. So I proposed it to Dale Johnson, Artistic Director of Minnesota Opera, and soon a commission was born—my fifth with the company—through their New Works Initiative.” (His other operas with Minnesota include the Pulitzer Prize-winning Silent Night and The Shining.) Mark plunged right in and within months delivered a complete libretto to Bill. Anne Kaufman Schneider, the playwright’s daughter, gave it her blessing, and suddenly the project had legs.

One person who did not have legs, however, was Bolcom. He’d taken a severe fall and was suffering from eight broken ribs. Everyone was worried about Bill, sending him flowers, candy, audiobooks, and whatever we could think of to sustain him through his convalescence. He, in the meantime, got busy with Dinner at Eight. “Bill finished the score in eight months,” Mark told me. “That’s impressive for any composer, but especially incredible considering his physical condition.” Bill had also damaged his hands and was unable to use a pen or pencil for some time. Luckily, he had already learned how to compose on the computer using a popular program called Sibelius. “I had taken 28 hours of lessons—a student of mine taught me—and I finally had a decent enough command of the software. This was the first score I wrote almost completely on Sibelius—sure, I jotted down a few ideas, but they were practically illegible. I’ve had six operations on my hands.”

Bill and Mark gravitated to Dinner at Eight because they both wanted to fuse opera with musical theater. Bill’s previous opera, A Wedding, had a light touch as well. “I didn’t really want to string together the libretto with show tunes,” said Mark. “The arias are usually structured like popular songs, with many in the usual A-A-B-A format. But Dinner at Eight—the play—is dark, darker than the Hollywood movie on which it’s based. Using a lot of rhyme seems an obvious stylistic choice, but is inconsonant with the story.” I was surprised—Mark is one of the great rhymers on the scene, and his razor wit has been a feature of so many of his libretti. He explained, “Rhyming text works best in purely comic works. In Dinner at Eight, there’s a fatal illness, financial ruin, unhappy marriages, a suicide. I feel that a lot of rhyme would’ve upset the balance and pushed the opera too far into the comic realm.”

When asked about the musical influences for the opera, Bill simply shrugs. “Everybody, everything I’ve ever heard—it’s all kicking around up there. I simply write what I need to create a given character, a given scene. These are highfalutin people—upper East Siders—not my crowd, really. Their music needed to be elegant. That’s why there are a number of waltzes. It just seemed appropriate to them.”

The beauty of Dinner at Eight is the way it balances the light and the dark—a modern dramma giocoso. “We tell the dark side of the story unsparingly, but also know the power of a few good laughs to keep the audience from feeling utter despair.” Mark told me. “These people are getting through an impossible time—the Great Depression—the best way they can.”

“And some of them are ruthless—Dan Packard is out to destroy Oliver Jordan,” added Bolcom. “That gets softened in the movie, but the play pulls no punches.” “And that is why it is so relevant to us right now,” said Mark. “‘The party goes on,’ they sing. And we too need to stay civil, stay together, and weather the next upheavals. The audience can relate to every character in the opera and Bill’s music only humanizes them all the more.”

A PICNIC CANTATA

Paul Bowles’ A Picnic Cantata has been something of a NYFOS signature piece ever since our late board member Morris Golde brought it to Michael Barrett’s attention in the early 1990s. I remember going with Michael to listen to it in the Lincoln Center Library Research Division—the LP was long out of print. Alternatively spiky and lyrical, utterly unpredictable, and oddly graceful, Bowles’ music won me over. We programmed it on a double bill with a concert reading of André Messager’s operetta L’amour masqué—a project so ambitious that I had to check my archives to reassure myself that my memory was not deceiving me. We should have renamed ourselves “The New York Festival of Chutzpah.”

Michael and I have offered A Picnic Cantata a few times—that first production in 1992, a revival when we made our first appearance at Weill Recital Hall in 1994, and a re-mount at Merkin 13 years ago. But we’ve always yearned to record the work, and will finally do so this week. Coming home to Paul Bowles’ music and James Schuyler’s words has been a pleasure and something of a revelation. In the 25 years since we first encountered A Picnic Cantata, we’ve learned more about both the composer and the poet. Its colors seem more vibrant than ever.

Paul Bowles was born in 1910, a native of this city. His creative life was always divided between music and literature. As a child he wrote stories and poems, and by the time he was 17 his work had been published in the magazine Transition, alongside poetry and prose by Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and André Gide. In his adolescence he dabbled in music as well, composing pieces on his family’s piano. He tried going to college at the University of Virginia, decided he was wasting his time, and hopped on a ship for Paris without letting his parents know. Upon his return a few months later, he plunged into music study with Henry Cowell, who introduced him to Aaron Copland.

Copland became Bowles’ teacher and mentor, even though Bowles hadn’t truly made a decision whether to pursue literature or music as a career. He returned to Paris to meet up with Copland. Bowles’s charm, wit, erudition, and good looks endeared him to Gertrude Stein and indeed to the entire Parisian set, whose denizens included Jean Cocteau, Ezra Pound, and Virgil Thomson. Thomson and Copland saw to it that Bowles’ music was heard in London and New York, and by 1933 it was clear that Paul Bowles was a musician to reckon with. Thomson also got his young protégé his first theatrical commissions, beginning with the John Houseman/Orson Welles production of Horse Eats Hat in 1936. Bowles’ incidental music was to become a feature of over twenty Broadway plays including Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie.

In 1938, Paul Bowles married novelist Jane Auer, and the two lived a peripatetic life. Their favorite ports of call included Mexico, Morocco, and Ceylon—Paul bought himself an island there named Tabropane—with frequent travels elsewhere. Jane preferred to be in New York, where she was part of the hippest artistic circles. But Paul Bowles liked life abroad and would only return to New York when he had to score a new Broadway play or hear the premiere of a new piece he’d written.

Travel may have been Paul Bowles’ calling, but his New York stays were far from dull. During the wartime years, Paul and Jane shared a Brooklyn Heights brownstone with a few housemates—Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears in one bedroom, and Gypsy Rose Lee in another. The mind boggles as one tries to imagine their cocktail conversation. After the war the Bowleses lived at 28 West 10th Street, this time sharing their digs with the duo-pianists Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale. Jerome Robbins lived down the block at #26, and Leonard Bernstein was in #32. Fizdale recalled how Bowles and Bernstein would open their studio windows and play piano duets across the airshaft. Paul and Jane Bowles hung out with Marc Blitzstein, Ned Rorem, John Cage, Edwin Denby, and Oliver Smith.

It was Smith who brought Gold and Fizdale together with the poet James Schuyler in 1953. The pianists were enjoying tremendous success, while Schuyler was at the very beginning of his career. He had already become the fourth writer in a group that would eventually be named The New York Poets—Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, and John Ashbery were the others. Schuyler was the late bloomer. He had managed to get individual poems of his into prestigious periodicals, but he didn’t publish a complete volume of poetry till the late 1960s.  He lacked the bravado and the initiative of his fellow writers. When big stars like Gold and Fizdale offered him a commission to write for them, he jumped at the chance. The pianists chose their friend Paul Bowles to write the music. Ten years earlier they had hired him on Copland’s recommendation to write them a piece, and been pleased with the result. The money for this commission came from music patron Alice Esty, who had studied singing with Leontyne Price’s teacher Florence Kimball. Esty was an indefatigable and generous patron of song in the 1950s and 60s, and often premiered the works she’d financed. A scrupulous if unexciting performer, she midwifed songs by Ned Rorem, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, and many others.

Schuyler was compatible with all of these artists. Music was in his blood. He was an accomplished amateur pianist—jazz was his thing—and was an ardent fan of both Art Blakey and Sviatoslav Richter. He loved the late French romantics like Franck and Reynaldo Hahn, and found special inspiration in the music of Fauré, whose combination of sensuality and objectivity mirrored his own poetic voice. Schuyler was especially compatible with Arthur Gold, with whom he launched a love affair. Gold was a confident man of the world taking a break from his ongoing relationship with Fizdale, while Schuyler tended to be more delicate and introverted. (Fizdale enjoyed a dalliance with Frank O’Hara during that time.) Schuyler ended their relationship a few years after the premiere of A Picnic Cantata, but the breakup left him troubled. In its aftermath he had a severe anxiety attack, exacerbated by the sudden deaths of two members of his circle, the painter Violet Lang and the lyricist John Latouche. This breakdown was a precursor of the many bouts of mental illness that would plague him for decades. In the 1960s and 70s, Schuyler was institutionalized several times and often lived a marginal existence when he was released. He took heavy doses of psycho-pharmaceuticals, mostly tranquilizers, during the last half of his adult life. His behavior could be erratic and sometimes frightening to his friends. Only a few of them were strong enough to handle him when he was in his darkest phases.

But Schuyler could also be endearing, funny, disarmingly open, and loyal, and this is the man one gets to know through his poetry. He charmed and seduced through his poetic voice, even during his periods of distress. He reveals his character in his libretto for A Picnic Cantata. For example, he was a voracious eater, and the amount of food these women bring on their picnic is a fantasy come true, a gourmet/gourmand’s delight. The fifth section reflects his love of flowers, as the ladies read a hilariously lurid version of the garden section in the Sunday paper. Schuyler had an encyclopedic knowledge of plants, and when he writes, “I never miss the garden section,/It describes Heaven to perfection,” he is merely stating the truth. And I imagine that the tale in the advice column—a woman agonizing about her affair with a married man—has its parallel in the Schuyler-Gold-Fizdale love triangle. His wry sense of humor is pervasive throughout the libretto—the women are simultaneously self-dramatizing and utterly demure. It wasn’t for nothing that he christened himself “Dorabella,” after the impulsive, daffy character in Mozart’s Così fan tutte.

Yes, there is a 50s camp sensibility in A Picnic Cantata, with its loopy, hyper-realistic descriptions of ordinary things and its emotions swimming to the surface at inappropriate moments. But the work’s greatest strength is its delicate balance of sensuality, seriousness, lightness, and irony. The key to the piece is its childlike innocence. In this world, a picnic basket seems to hold the entire contents of Zabar’s, a car materializes on cue, and the gathering together of these four friends seems like an act of providence. Schuyler melds the bluntness of Gertrude Stein and the fantasy of Maurice Sendak, allowing simple things to become paradoxical and mysterious.

In Paul Bowles, the poet found an ideal collaborator. The composer found a way to bring this world to life in music that mixes bitonality, Poulenc-style post-impressionism, and pure American melody. Each of the work’s six movements has its own atmosphere. In the first section, where the ladies meet and make their picnic plans, the music is square and clangorous—the giddiness of four prim people. You can also hear that Bowles has spent some time in Morocco and Ceylon; he uses exotic chords and scales that seem to evoke non-European instruments. The ladies’ first stop is Hat Hill Park (named after the mythical freedom-fighter Henry Hat). For this he writes a chorale that evokes the mystical lyricism of Poulenc’s religious works. In the third section, the music perks up as the women tuck into the picnic. As they unpack, the women sing in polytonal chords, which (in tandem with the percussion writing) suggest the sounds of gamelan.

The women appear to consume massive amounts of food very quickly, and then settle back to watch the clouds. For the first time we see them in a state of languor, and Bowles allows the harmony to relax as the vocal melodies float by gently. Then it’s time for the ladies to read the Sunday paper, starting (of course) with the horoscope. They recite readings for Taurus and Gemini in a burst of manic energy, ending with triumphant flourishes in the piano. Then the first alto reads the advice column, and we hear the work’s only solo song. The tone becomes sincere and poignant, with Bowles’ most beautiful melody in the whole piece. By the end of the letter, we aren’t sure whether the singer is reading from the paper or confessing her own guilty secrets to her friends.

The garden section of the paper comes to the rescue with a clangorous tango located somewhere between Asia, Bali, and Brazil. The music chatters, gyrates, and moans as these four proper ladies go native, revealing unsuspected depths of sensuality. After that, they pack up and drive home in a finale that has an odd tone of foreboding and mystery. Suddenly Bowles’ music is stern, square, and heavy—who else has written a piece that paints the uncomfortable shift from vacation to work, weekend to weekday, abandon to constraint? With a chorus of “toodle-oo’s” the women disappear back into their routines.

A Picnic Cantata premiered at Town Hall in 1954. Originally Bowles seems to have thought of it as a piece for male quartet; the first movement is still written for two tenors, baritone, and bass. But Bowles and Schuyler must have realized that the piece might come across as too precious, too “twee” if sung by men. They instantly recast it for female voices, and engaged four African-American singers from Juilliard’s graduate division. I spoke to Martha Flowers, who sang the first soprano part. She was friends with Robert Fizdale, who sometimes accompanied her voice lessons with Florence Kimball, Alice Esty’s teacher. “He was very reserved and gentle, and what a musician! We always sang better when he was there. Arthur Gold was snazzy. Bobby was quieter, and what a wonderful artist.” I wondered how they presented the piece. “Well, we wore concert gowns, no costumes, and we used scores. We didn’t have any staging. Of course, we knew the piece cold—we’d worked on it quite a lot. And we were so enthusiastic about it!” How was it received? “The premiere was a great success, though it was considered a bit avant-garde for its time.” Did the singers find it difficult, then? “Oh, no. It’s not hard.” When I mentioned that her assessment might have been different if she hadn’t been singing the top voice, Martha Flowers burst into laughter. “Well, yes. Perhaps!”

Alas, the collaboration of Schuyler and Bowles was a one-time event. Schuyler never wrote another libretto, and Bowles was already devoting more and more of his time to fiction. According to Ned Rorem, “In 1949, with the publication of The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles became ‘the author who also writes music,’ after having long been ‘the composer who also writes words.’” Bowles settled in Tangier, far from New York’s Town Hall, leaving behind a small, largely unpublished oeuvre for later generations to discover and enjoy. Searching out his music is like participating in a hunt for Easter eggs—a fact I am sure he would enjoy. His novels are dark, but his music often has a sweet, childlike joy. For the twenty-nine minutes of A Picnic Cantata, all’s right in the world.

William Bolcom: His Manner is Gentle (from “Lucrezia”)

Sasha Cooke walked into my studio at Juilliard twelve years ago, bringing songs from Fauré’s La chanson d’Eve. My life instantly took a turn for the better. From the beginning Sasha had That Sound—I describe her voice as the love child of Janet Baker and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson—rich, intense, somehow fruity and folky at the same time. I knew I wanted to be one of her musical partners for life, also sensing that I would have to share her with a lot of other folks. (Thank God I had learned to be polyamorous as a musician.) I got to see her pretty much every week, and we formed a strong bond as musicians and as friends. (I sort of introduced her to her husband Kelly Markgraf a few years later, but that’s another blog.)

Sasha soon made her New York debut with NYFOS in a program about music’s great patronesses: Godmothers of Song. She was replacing a Swedish singer who canceled at short notice. At the time I was furious, but now I bless that Scandinavian mezzo for giving Sasha the opportunity. She sang beautifully, and that night led to a bunch of other appearances with us, including the world premiere of two one-act operas with libretti by Mark Campbell: Bastianello, with music by John Musto, and Lucrezia, with music by William Bolcom. This was one of our biggest commissions ever, and we needed our A-list players.

Both of those operas gave Sasha a chance to exhibit her first-class chops as a comedienne (where did she learn such perfect comic timing?), and playing the title role in Lucrezia she also got a rare onstage opportunity to be a sexpot. Sasha’s character is married to a seedy older man who prefers the company of prostitutes to that of his wife. His neglect is reaching crisis proportions—not that she loves or desires her husband, but according to the rules of marriage he is her designated bed partner. Lucrezia is in luck: she gets wind of a young man who desperately wants to sleep with her, and unbeknownst to him becomes privy to his elaborate scheme for seducing her. This allows her to get control of the situation. Lorenzo, the young man (played by Paul Appleby), puts on the garb of a fake traveling padre who comes to take her confession on a street corner—he runs a business called “Confession on Wheels,” and the wheels in our performance turned out to be my mobility scooter making its theatrical debut. Lucrezia uses the opportunity to confess her sexual desires in exquisite detail, including exactly how she would like to make love, how long between bouts, and her favorite cologne (Sandalo). Paul, of course, played the scene like a master, writing down each of her requests until he was just scribbling circles on the page with his eyes rolling to the back of their sockets. Since Lucrezia takes place in Argentina, Bill Bolcom wrote Piazzolla-tinged tangos throughout. This tune sounds like a parody of “Makin’ Whoopee”—which is 100% appropriate.

Sasha has gone on to conquer the world with an unusual career that leans towards orchestra, chamber music, and recital gigs more than most of her contemporaries. Conductors flip for her—I remember Alan Gilbert coming up to me after she’d sung Britten’s Spring Symphony with him at the New York Phil, and blubbering, “Steve, this is MAJOR! I mean, this is MAJOR!” I answered, “Oh, yes, of course. But she was major when she sang the premiere of ‘Dr. Atomic’ with you at the Met” “Oh, she was fine…but…this is more MAJOR. I mean, she’s ARRIVED.”

This past June, David Gockley stepped down from his post as Artistic Director of San Francisco Opera, and there was a gala concert in his honor. Susan Graham canceled her appearance a few days before the gig, and Sasha flew in to replace her. She inherited the place of honor: the second-last aria in the program, which was Dido’s aria from the last act of Berlioz’s Les Troyens. She triumphed. I was in San Francisco just after the performance and the place was still buzzing about Sasha’s singing that night. Mark Morash, the Music Director of the Opera Center at SFO, walked into my studio and was almost speechless about what he’d heard. “I mean, Steve, she was…she was…INCREDIBLE. She had a slow aria at the end of a long evening, and I thought, ‘Was this a good idea?’ But the sound that poured out of her! And…the phrasing! The eloquence! The way she handled the space! Time stopped!”

I cleared my throat, remembering that she had been turned down for their young artist program twelve years earlier. Worse than that: when I asked Mark later that day how her audition had been, he could not remember anything about it. I let a moment pass before I said, “You remember, Mark, of course…” He cut me off. “I know. I know. I KNOW! I have nothing to say, no defense. We make mistakes. But she was…GREAT.” “Major?” “MAJOR.”

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