William Bolcom – A World of Song

Written by: Colin Anderson

American composer and pianist William Bolcom hits London on 1 June to join his colleagues Lowell Liebermann and Ned Rorem to perform with soprano Carole Farley at Wigmore Hall … and Naxos has issued Bolcom’s William Blake settings, Songs of Innocence and of Experience…

Aficionados of song should head to Wigmore Hall on Wednesday 1 June. Soprano Carole Farley has gathered together three eminent American composers who are also pianists. Each will be accompanying her. They are, in alphabetical order: William Bolcom, Lowell Liebermann and Ned Rorem. “It was Carole’s idea; she is Miss Enterprise!” So says William Bolcom (Bill). Do all three composers get on? “We’re all friendly. Lowell is particularly a kick. Ned can be quite acid at times, but anyone who can sing the entire Mae West songbook on request is ok in my estimation!” I ask Bill what makes a good song? “I don’t know! I try to write in a way that clarifies the text, that is supplying the emotional subtext in music so that the whole poem is illuminated.”

How does Bill deal with wearing two hats, those of composer and piano accompanist? Do his songs surprise him when the singer gets to them? “Sometimes! Some people’s takes are just wrongheaded, but usually I find they get it. I have to switch hats; otherwise I’d maybe be fussing all the time. I have to pretend someone else wrote it!” Of Carole Farley, Bill describes her as “fearless.” She has made a CD of Ned Rorem’s songs, with the composer (8.559084). Rorem is regarded as the doyen of song composers. How does Bill value his colleague? “He’s done more maybe than the rest of us and always picked worthwhile texts; his Whitman songs are his best because he makes them sound natural – very hard to do!”

Bill Bolcom himself is a prolific composer of enormous range. What might be his magnum opus, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, is just out on Naxos (8.559216-18, 3 CDs). What was the draw of William Blake’s poetry? “I fell in love with Blake at 17; I just felt an immediate affinity.” Written in stages over a number of years, did Bill always have an overview as to how the whole work might turn out? “Absolutely. I was very often surprised when the style the poem implied to me came. Was I really going to do The Shepherd in Country and Western? Finally when the setting wouldn’t go away I gave in and set it the way it came out. That was the policy throughout.” A work of many styles, does the universality of Blake’s poems require an inclusive musical response? “That must have been my decision; I’d tried to continue the opening song’s Brittenesque approach and couldn’t. I increasingly saw that every new stylistic string to my bow was a potential translation to some poem in the cycle. I did not try to be inclusive for its own sake, though; if I had there would have been arbitrary decisions to fill a stylistic agenda and that would have been the wrong approach, which everybody would have spotted.”

Sales in the States have been encouraging. Leonard Slatkin conducts this vast work – he gave the UK premiere in 1996 – and Naxos’s booklet includes all of Blake’s poems. “It’s important to have the text alongside, and a simple CD burning won’t give you that. I wanted the work to be easily available worldwide, and Naxos is the only label to do that. I must say with some pride that, prior to the European release, we sold so many CDs that Naxos will pay me royalties – the first royalties I’ve ever garnered for a work of mine on disc.” Could Naxos now record Bolcom’s sixth and seventh symphonies, please?

It was at the BBC rehearsals for the Blake, in 1996, that I first met Bill and his singer wife Joan Morris. Their cabaret duo has previously graced Wigmore Hall. Bill is looking forward to returning. “We should have a good time. I’ve never done a concert with Carole Farley but I’m sure she wins the audience. Joan and I have played the Wigmore twice and we would love to come back – the best-sounding hall in London, and the size and atmosphere are perfect. Maybe someday again.” Could be the first line of a song!

  • Carole Farley recital on 1 June, Wigmore Hall
  • Wigmore Hall
  • William Bolcom
  • Naxos
  • The above article was published in “What’s On in London” on 25 May 2005 and is reproduced here with permission

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