Grant Park Music Festival to wrap season with Bill Bolcom premiere

Mon Aug 11, 2014 at 11:27 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

William Bolcom's "Millennium: A Concerto-Fantasy for Orchestra" will have its world premiere Friday night at the Grant Park Music Festival.
William Bolcom’s “Millennium: A Concerto-Fantasia for Orchestra” will have its world premiere Friday night at the Grant Park Music Festival.

As the musical organization in Chicago most committed to works of American composers, the Grant Park Music Festival has elected to close its 80th anniversary season in fitting and characteristic style.

For this final week of concerts, the festival is feting William Bolcom, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer with long-established local ties.

This weekend’s program will feature Carlos Kalmar leading the Grant Park Orchestra in the world premiere of Bolcom’s Millennium, a work commissioned by the lakefront festival. Subtitled “A Concerto-Fantasia for Orchestra” the 20-minute work amounts to a kind of summing up of music over the last several decades.

“It has to do with change,” said the composer, as engaging and energetic as ever at 76. “There’s a sense of everything that has gone before and today as well.”

The composer said the six sections are not movements as such, but more “chapters with one leading into the next.”

“There is a sea change that happened,” he adds. “A sort of uncertainty about musical development and what the future is of music—as well as how we will live our lives. There’s a focus on personality now in the arts and elsewhere, rather than on more substantial things.”

“What it definitely has is his coloristic elements of working very brilliantly with instruments,” says Kalmar, Grant Park’s principal conductor and artistic director. “Bolcom orchestrates and uses instruments very well and to great effect. It’s a concerto for orchestra, and, of course he makes all the first stands shine.”

“The six movements are all very different from each other in terms of basic character,” adds the conductor. “I wouldn’t call it a piece that ‘travels through time’ but there are things that he wrote with remembering [past elements of] Romanticism.”

“And, of course, the speed of each movement is very different,” Kalmar adds. “However, the interesting trick is that the basic pulse of the piece is always the same. It’s always 63. There is one movement where he goes to 72 and when I read that, I thought, ‘My God, that’s daring!’ But he essentially manages to do fast, slow, that and the other with one pace.”

On a practical basis Kalmar also appreciates Bolcom’s speed and lack of fuss in composing. “You know when you do commissions you have to go two or three years in advance with people of that stature. With this we had only a little over a year.”

While most attention is focused on Millennium, Wednesday’s concert will also offer a second Bolcom premiere of sorts with two new orchestrations among his Cabaret Songs, which will be performed by Ryan Opera Center members from Lyric Opera on Wednesday’s program.

The Seattle-born composer’s style has evolved over his career. He began in the prevailing dense, serial style of the 1960s, later segueing into experimental works, and finally a lean accessible voice that draws freely on populist and vernacular elements.

Bolcom has been strikingly prolific over his lifetime with an output that includes nine symphonies, eleven string quartets, several concertante works and numerous songs–many written for his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for his 12 New Etudes for Piano.

His three major operas McTeague, A View From the Bridge, and A Wedding were all commissioned by and premiered at Lyric Opera. And though none have been revived in Chicago, McTeague will be performed in Linz, Austria, in 2016 and A View from the Bridge has become almost a repertory piece across the U.S., receiving a successful mounting this past April at Michigan Opera Theater in Detroit.

“What always attracted me about Bill’s music was that he was doing multiculturalism before anyone else was doing multiculturalism,” said Leonard Slatkin.

Slatkin, who made a heralded return to the Grant Park Music Festival last month, has enjoyed a close working relationship with Bolcom that stretches over four decades. Slatkin began including his Commedia for (Almost) 18th-century Orchestra on his programs regularly and Bolcom soon became one of the contemporary American composers Slatkin has most championed, the conductor appreciating his “anti-academic view of how music should sound.”

Bolcom’s most celebrated—if rarely performed work—is the Blake-inspired Songs of Innocence and Experience, a sprawling three-hour work that incorporates rock, blues, and gospel, which Slatkin recorded at the University of Michigan in 2004 (available on Naxos).

“This is the summation of musical thought in the 20th century,” said Slatkin. “It contains every aspect of musical ideology from medieval to 12 tone to rock and jazz.”

More recently Slatkin has seen a honing and concision in Bolcom’s style over the decades. “In the last 20 years I’ve seen him consolidate his structure. The pieces have gotten tighter. And he’s even reverting back to Milhaud.”

Asked to name which Bolcom works he places among the composer’s finest, Slatkin has to think for a moment. “He’s been so prolific in so many genres. Certainly Innocence and Experience will always be thought of as his magnum opus. But also the Piano Etudes, certainly. I would go out on a limb and say the Violin Concerto. And among the symphonies, I would choose the Fourth.”

Bolcom is hardly slowing down. He has recently completed a piano trio and a four-hand piano work. He is about to “clear the decks” to begin work on his next opera, Dinner at Eight, based upon the hit 1932 play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber (made into a successful film starring John Barrymore, Wallace Beery and Jean Harlow).

As with Millennium, Dinner at Eight is about transition and a time of key changes in America, in this case the decline of the industrial age. “We see the beginning of the end of the shipping companies,” said Bolcom. “The original play is much darker than the movie.” Dinner at Eight was commissioned by Minnesota Opera, where it will premiere in the 2016-17 season.

Still, while Bill Bolcom talks about easing into retirement, the composer doesn’t appear eager to do so anytime soon. He references a celebrated colleague who was active until his death at 103.

“At 76, I probably won’t be composing too much longer,” he said. “Unless I wind up being like Elliott Carter!”

Carlos Kalmar leads the Grant Park Orchestra in the world premiere of William Bolcom’s Millennium 6:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Pritzker Pavilion. The program will also include John Adams’ Tromba Lontana and Ravel’s complete Daphnis et Chloe.

Also at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra are joined by Ryan Opera Center artists in Bolcom’s Cabaret Songs, along with Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 and Walter Piston’s The Incredible Flutist.

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