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N.Y. Philharmonic's `Composer Week' Anchors New Work

William Bolcom's eclectic influences show in his music and may help reclaim concert halls for living composers

By Anthony TommasiniSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 18, 1995



NEW YORK

Ever since the German maestro Kurt Masur became music director of the New York Philharmonic, he has tried to give each of his programs a thematic focus. So far this hasn't amounted to much. Though a superb conductor, Mr. Masur is a conventional programmer. The thematic tags for the Philharmonic's concerts are mostly advertising slogans to repackage the classics: ``Gavrilov Plays Rachmaninoff'' or ``All-Tchaikovsky Evening.''

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One upcoming program, however, is called ``Composer Week: William Bolcom.'' What this means is that a living, breathing composer will be the featured attraction.

Of course, there was a time when every week of every symphony orchestra's life was composer week. In the days when classical concert music was an ongoing art form, rather than an exercise in preservation, orchestras primarily played new works by living composers.

Composers, at least those who have written all those super-complex, dissonance-saturated, intimidating works, share some of the blame for alienating audiences. But vibrant new music is being written all the time by living composers, especially by William Bolcom. Moreover, Mr. Bolcom's approach to music may hold one of the solutions to reclaiming the concert hall as a place not just for a comfortable experience with old music, but for a bracing experience with new music.

Born in Seattle, Bolcom had a typically thorough musical upbringing. He studied with Darius Milhaud at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., and with Olivier Messiaen in Paris; and later taught at the University of Washington and Queens College in Flushing, N.Y.

But what has distinguished Bolcom's musical life from that of his composer colleagues is his lifelong involvement with American popular music. Bolcom was at the forefront of the ragtime revival, playing rags on the piano beguilingly and writing some nifty rags of his own.

In 1971, he met the versatile American mezzo-soprano Joan Morris. Together they have performed to great acclaim the neglected repertory of turn-of-the-century American parlor songs, music-hall songs, and the show songs of Gershwin, Kern, Porter, and company.

Bolcom's knowledge of this repertory is encyclopedic; his piano playing is a model of stylishness and taste.

American popular music is part of Bolcom's inner ear, and it spills into the music he writes for the concert hall. Sometimes the crisscrossing of styles is deliberate. Nowhere is this more true than in a work written over a period of 25 years, Bolcom's sprawling, two-hour setting of William Blake's ``Songs of Innocence and Experience,'' scored for full orchestra, chorus, boys' chorus, a rock band, sundry percussion instruments, and eight vocal soloists - everything from an operatic coloratura to a Broadway balladeer.

Students of Blake have grappled for generations with these texts, trying to fathom the transcendent nature of Blake's vision. How exactly do these lyrics that can seem naive, even simple-minded, manage to stir and transfix us so?

In his audacious composition, Bolcom captures in music the enigmatic transcendence of Blake's poetry. Stylistically, the music boldly spans the gamut of compositional innocence and experience. There are songful tunes and severely modernist densities, country fiddle music and Scottish snaps, moody blues, strummed guitar songs, frenetic contemporary counterpoint, celestial boy sopranos, disarmingly beautiful melodies, and disjointedly tortured outbursts.

How Bolcom manages to make it all seem right and true is as much a mystery as Blake's achievement.

Even when Bolcom is not trying to crisscross styles, his ear for popular idioms comes out naturally in his concert works, as in his piano etudes from 1988 that won him the Pulitzer Prize in music.

Too often, young American composers determined to be serious close off memories of the music they grew up with. A young composer - a baby boomer who has grown up with rock, doo-wop, and sitcom theme songs, for example - composes a somber new work. But what does the music seem to recall? The gas-lit garrets of 1920s Vienna. This can happen when composers are sheltered in universities.

Why shouldn't a young American, when writing a serious string quartet, let a jitter of a Fender bass spike up a cello line, if that's what pops into the composer's ear? This has nothing to do with aiming for the ``crossover'' market, which is a marketing tactic, not a compositional technique.

Bolcom's work is a reminder that the only sure way to be original and fresh is to be true to yourself.

The Philharmonic programs will present Bolcom's 1971 ``Commedia'' and his Fifth Symphony.

Conductor Leonard Slatkin, who led the most prominent of the three American performances of Bolcom's Blake songs, will be on the podium. The program also includes Toch's ``Pinocchio'' and Stravinsky's ``Petrouchka.''

* The New York Philharmonic's `Composer Week,' featuring William Bolcom, includes three concerts: Jan. 19 and Jan. 21 at 8 p.m. and Jan. 20 at 11 a.m, at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center.