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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Songs of Innocence and Experience"

I was advising a student this morning, and it reminded me of what a great opportunity music school can be. He was looking for Mozart piano sonatas, a typical enough request, in particular K. 331, which includes not only the well-known "rondo alla turca", but a delightful, lilting first movement. In some dusty corner of my brain I remembered an old promotional recording I'd received many years ago from the Eastman School of Music, on which was a piece by the late U-M composer William Albright, one Sleepwalker's Shuffle, the opening of which was based on the opening of that first movement.
My memory being what it is, I mistakenly told this young composition major that it had been composed by William Bolcom. He responded with the question I'd hoped for--'who's that?" So i took him through the story about how he'd won the Pulitzer for his first set of 12 etudes for piano, when in fact people were remembering his magnum opus from the year previous, "Songs of Innocence and Experience", a complete setting of the poems by William Blake, using everything from Reggae to 12-tone to (yes) cowboy waltz. If there was ever a 20th century musical version of "everything but the kitchen sink", this was it. (Bad joke alert). Bolcom was obviously saving the kitchen sink for Lime Jello Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise (no, really, this song really exists).
I was in Ann Arbor, and attended the North American premiere of the work, which featured Charles Holland, Leslie Guinn (cowboy music), and Richard Taylor(rock and reggae sections)--and that was just the baritone soloists! I attended the dress rehearsal, and I have a lot of stories, but I'll just make you suffer through one. Carl St. Clair, then associate director of bands, was sitting a couple of rows behind me, taking in everything.
This piece was a study in contrasts, and undoubtedly displayed Bolcom's dazzling talent in many different musical genres; There was a piece called "the shepherd", which started with rather noisy, menacing music, and just as suddenly stripped down to two violins playing ever so slightly off key, but unmistakeably a country waltz. I hear Professor St. Clair guffaw loudly, but the best was yet to come--as opera luminary Leslie Guinn steps up and, in his best semi-cowboy yodel, sings "How sweet is the shepherd's sweet lot, from the morn to the evening he strays". Gustav Meier (conductor/traffic cop for the performance) stopped to correct something, but the choir gave Prof. Guinn a rowdy cheer for decidedly stepping out of character.
I DO wish I didn't have to leave before the semester's over, but c'est le guerre..I've done good work while I was here, and I left a lasting, positive impression on nearly everyone I worked with. Yet. 
Onward...

*--William Blake, set to music by William Bolcom over the course of 25 years (1955-1980)..
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