JOAN MORRIS AND WILLIAM BOLCOM
at Bennett Hall, Ravinia
CHICAGO SYMPHONY CHAMBER ENSEMBLE
at Orchestra Hall
I can still remember the evening when I accidentally discovered the unusual sideline of William Bolcom and his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, on my car radio. I was driving on a fall evening in the western suburbs, just as a huge orange moon was breaking over the horizon. I heard an unusual ballad, sung with remarkable story-telling ability and a refreshing, clear timbre, about a young girl shunning her porch courtship because she was afraid of the dark. The song took off into the familiar chorus of "Shine on, Harvest Moon," and I was so intrigued that I sat outside my destination to wait for the announcement of who was performing. I was impressed that someone had made this corny old song sound so fresh and interesting. I was also struck by the piano accompaniment, which was a far cry from the stuff you find in sheet music from the era. Most remarkable of all, however, was that the pianist turned out to be William Bolcom, one of America's foremost contemporary composers of "serious" music.
As I learned shortly, Bolcom is not only interested in turn-of-the-century popular music, he has virtually made a second career out of performing and recording it. And he and Morris are capable of performing it in such a stylish manner that one is led to wonder: is this old stuff a lot better than past performances of it have revealed, or is the Morris/Bolcom artistry so sublime that she could just sing the phone book while he improvised around her?
Whatever the case, Bolcom and Morris presented one of the most memorable and entertaining concerts imaginable early last month, made all the more so because of the ideal environment of Ravinia's intimate Bennett Hall (and all the more striking for the fact that just two days earlier, Lyric Opera had announced that Bolcom would write an opera as part of that organization's new commitment to contemporary American music). There was no set program, but a fascinating potpourri that opened with Joe Howard's 1909 vaudevillian "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now," a humorous look at the fickle nature of love on both sides of the gender line, performed with an appealing balance of tenderness and irony. Scott Joplin's "Pine Apple Rag" was performed in such a lively manner that Morris was dancing to the upbeat choruses; it was hard not to be affected by Bolcom's uncanny sense of ragtime syncopation. A poignant portrait of old Indiana and lost love was painted in Paul Dressler's 1897 "On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away," and Eubie Blake's "I'm Just Wild About Harry" featured a deliciously wild piano interlude, Blake heard through ears of Bolcom.
Other songwriters represented included George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Leonard Bernstein, Steven Sondheim, and even Hank Williams Jr. Two Charles Ives songs were included, and special emphasis was given to the music of recently deceased Irving Berlin. What was amazing through all of it was the complete shift of mood and technique that both Bolcom and Morris could make with each of these songs. Morris has a considerable instrument, and she uses it when appropriate, but she's not afraid to put beauty of tone aside when the humor or message of a song calls for it. Thus none of the songs came off in the generic, operatic manner that they do when opera singers visit the Tonight Show and try to sing popular songs as if they're singing Puccini. Bolcom, for his part, not only brings out the most interesting rhythmic and harmonic schemes possible for these often silly songs, whose original accompaniments are usually pretty inane, he also weaves melodically in and around his wife's vocal lines in virtually a continuo fashion, seemingly anticipating her every phrase. It is rare to see such extraordinary interplay and total collaboration between soloist and accompanist.
Ravinia's retiring executive director, Edward Gordon, had asked Bolcom if he could play some of his own piano music for this concert, and Bolcom was happy to oblige, although not without the caveat, "If I make a mess, I have a perfect right; I'm the composer." He played through all three of his famous but fiendishly difficult "Ghost Rags" not only with considerable technical precision, but also with uncanny energy and spirit. It was a treat to hear Bolcom play these pieces--"Graceful Ghost," "Dream Shadow," and the frantic atonal romp at the center of the three, "Poltergeist Rag"--and since they showed his more whimsical side, they did not seem at all out of place in the context of this concert.
A week later, the Chicago Symphony Chamber Ensemble spotlighted two Bolcom pieces in a concert at Orchestra Hall. Although probably no pianist could play Bolcom's own music with the conviction that he can give it, CSO pianist Mary Sauer did a wonderful job accompanying violinist/violist Richard Ferrin in Bolcom's Fancy Tales for Violin and Piano. Ferrin was able to achieve a very quiet, full violin sound that suggested calm mystery in "The Phantom-Sweetheart," detailing a man's love affair with a vampire. Although there were moments in the piece when I thought a purer tone would have been more effective, Ferrin brilliantly gave the cadenza the quality of a scratchy record, suggesting the vampire evaporating into the mist, while Sauer plucked away on the piano strings. "The Centaurs in Flight" has a much wilder mood, with a frantic violin-piano dialogue. The interplay between Ferrin and Sauer was one of total and equal partners, though again it seemed to me that the piece would have benefited from a smoother violin sound. "The Dwarf's Serenade and Variations" tells the story of a dwarf in love; he serenades his lady but in the end she leaves him. The music vacillates between the dancelike serenade itself and a variety of transformations achieved through double stops and tonality shifts. All of it was effectively communicated, but the piece bogged down at times; it could have used more variation in tempo and timbre.
The best of the Fancy Tales was the last, "The Abandoned Ferryboat," impressionism a la Bolcom. Ferrin's tone and variety of color and dynamics were magnificent for the piece's many effects, including a tritone section in which he hauntingly whistled along.
Also on the program at Orchestra Hall was Bolcom's Session III, one of a series of pieces that are more experimental in nature than the Fancy Tales; each piece is in effect an organized jam session for a small ensemble of instrumental soloists. Session III is scored for violin, cello, clarinet, piano, and percussion, and features a number of interesting sounds and effects, notably the clarinet blowing into the piano lid for overtones and vibrations and elsewhere playing in an extremely high range, which is no problem if the clarinetist is John Bruce Yeh. Improvised and scored sections alternate in the piece, yet the ensemble had done their homework so effectively that it was difficult to tell which sections were which.
This concert began with an account of the Boccherini Quintet no. 9 for Guitar and Strings (La rititirata di Madrid), a very dull piece that was given a less than distinguished performance; though it began promisingly enough with a lively tempo and feeling, things quickly became stodgy. The strings were constantly overpowering the guitar, and virtually every beat of the piece was clearly discernible, allowing little room for any free flow of Baroque line or phrasing. Pitch and intonation were also problematic.
Mozart's Clarinet Quintet (K. 581) closed out the concert, with John Bruce Yeh as soloist. The tempi were insufferably slow, and the strings were very weighed down. Even so, Yeh was able to bring out the flowing, lyrical beauty of the piece with register shifts that were virtuosic yet poetic.