CULTURE & THE ARTS:
Premieres by William Bolcom--With and Without Him
AUFBAU 63:26 Dec. 19, 1997 p13
by Leonard Lehrman
Dec. 11, 1997
A William Bolcom premiere is an event not be missed, especially when the composer/pianist is himself a participant. I first heard him perform his own 12 Etudes for Piano in the early 1960s at Tanglewood, and have been an avid follower of his career through numerous stage works and awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, since then.
Malfitano at Tully
Announced as Catherine Malfitano's accompanist for a varied program at Alice Tully Hall November 26, he unfortunately had to cancel. Chicago Lyric Opera Assistant Conductor Robert Tweten filled in instead, in a program of Rodrigo, Barber, Satie, Poulenc, Weill, and Bolcom - with Gershwin's "My Man's Gone Now" as an audacious second encore.
All, the singer noted from the stage, were written in the 20th century, including the delightful "Three Songs" of Satie, written in 1916 (not 1887 as misnoted on the program). Bolcom is writing for her both a role (Beatrice) in his new opera (A View from the Bridge, after the play by Arthur Miller, to be premiered in Chicago in fall, 1999) and a new song cycle ("on a mythical figure whose name begins with M - and it's not Malfitano!" - she asked that no more than that about the new work be revealed), with collaborator Arnold Weinstein, to be premiered in 2000, in English, though translations have already been made of the text into Italian and German. For this concert, she gave the professional premiere of his 1978 "Mary," on a William Blake text.
The Weill set of seven numbers to Brecht texts was sung cabaret style, on a stool and occasionally walking around the piano to growl at the accompanist, in an odd mlange of German along with English translations, credited and uncredited, by Marc Blitzstein, Michael Feingold, and George Tabori. To her credit, Ms. Malfitano showed herself equally at home, and a pleasure to hear, in all genres and styles.
Morris & Valente at the Y
Bolcom's Cabaret Songs, Volumes 3 & 4 received their premiere December 2 at the 92nd Street Y, this time with Bolcom at the piano, accompanying his wife Joan Morris, a mezzo-soprano, whom the composer characterized in the pre-concert discussion as "an actress who sings." She is of course much more than that, and has faithfully been his interpreter and partner for a quarter of a century. Arnold Weinstein, author of the texts of the songs, has been working with him several years longer than that: the most successful enterprise of the threesome can be heard in the 1991 theater-piece Casino Paradise, which was given a full-blown staging in Philadelphia ("where we had," said Bolcom, "you'll pardon the expression - a 'director'") and, much more in line with the creators' wishes, was presented with a truncated cast at The Ballroom in Manhattan.
The new Cabaret Songs vary in date of composition from 1963 ("Angels are the Highest Form of Virtue," inspired by Bolcom's teacher Olivier Messiaen) to almost the present. They begin promisingly with an admonition to "The Total Stranger in the Garden" behind a newspaper who may or may not be the singer's husband to "Stop reading me out of house and home!", run a gamut of styles, and finally come to rest "real still with you" on a simple C major blues.
But all this was as if prelude to the almost unbelieveably beautiful singing of soprano Benita Valente in the second half. Pianist Cynthia Raim accompanied her in the New York premiere of Bolcom's cycle Briefly It Enters on nine poems by the late Jane Kenyon, whose widower Donald Hall spoke and read briefly in the pre-concert discussion. Again the styles varied greatly from song to song, ranging from a Bachian regularity and an A-flat minor cadence in "Otherwise" to quintuplet upward arpeggios in "February: Thinking of Flowers" to a soft but relentless quasi-dirge in "The Sick Wife." Constant, though, was Valente's pure expressive tone and diction, often enhanced by a young Beverly Sills-like [sic: not "Beverly Hills-like" as appeared in the paper!} sob in the upper register. One does not hear such exquisite singing that often these days, especially in new works.
The all-Bolcom program ended with Let Evening Come, on poems by Maya Angelou, Emily Dickinson, and again Jane Kenyon. Violist Samuel Rhodes joined Ms. Raim in sensitively accompanying Ms. Valente in this 1994 cycle, originally conceived as a duet cycle for her and the late Tatyana Troyanos. "God does not leave us comfortless," begins the last sentence of the text's final tercet; and this will indeed always be true, so long as we have such poetry, such music, and such artists to perform it all for us.
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