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An Interview With William Bolcom: Serendipity

November 17, 2009

William Bolcom has always made his own way. Throughout his career, which has produced symphonies, operas, chamber pieces, and piano and vocal works, the Seattle-born, Michigan-based composer has often rejected the prevailing notions of what “serious” music should include. 

He was among the first to revive the piano rag form, and with his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, has explored the American song repertoire in concert and recordings for over 35 years. Bolcom, who won multiple Grammy Awards for his setting of William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and of Experience,” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for Twelve New Études for piano. At 71, he continues to compose. This week, the New Century Chamber Orchestra will perform his Three Rags and Serenata Notturna. Later this season, the ensemble will premiere his newest work, Romanza. I spoke to him by phone in Ann Arbor, Michigan.


You are the New Century’s featured composer this season, and the group will be playing two of your works on this month’s program. What can you tell us about them?

They’re both kind of sweet and accessible — not my thorny style at all. They’re pretty easy to swallow. I don’t know what’s happened the last few years; I find I’m getting purer harmonically. I do have an extended tonality, but it’s definitely kind of particular. I wouldn’t say it’s atonal, just a little veiled sometimes. The Serenata Notturna was originally for oboe and string quartet; it was written for the wonderful first oboist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Richard Woodhams, who did the first performance with the Guarneri Quartet. When I wrote it, it struck me that it could also be done in a string orchestra version. That’s the version New Century will be premiering.

You’re also writing a new concerto, Romanza, which Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg will premiere in the spring.

Yes, I wanted to do sort of a lyrical piece for her as soloist, with not too much pyrotechnics. I wrote it for Nadja. It’s a very un-show-offy violin concerto, and I hope it will be fun to listen to. I’ve done plenty of pieces that will scare the bejesus out of you, and this will be much milder. It’s just strings; I’m not using any winds. I just signed off on the score, and now I’m putting together a piano score for her to work with.

What makes her a good interpreter of your music?

She’s a fine musician, and I really enjoy working with her. I wrote my third Sonata for her, and we premiered it together, so we go back a bit. That piece was written very much with her strong bravura style in mind. It’s what she’s known for, and it’s what she does with great style. When you’re listening on the radio, you know it’s Nadja the minute you hear her — which used to be true of many more fiddlers, and I have to say that, right now, more of them sound alike than different.

You’ve also just released a new CD with your wife, Joan. What does it include?

It’s called Someone Talked. It’s an anthology of songs around World War II. It’s like a little radio show, without commercials. Hazen Schumacher, the narrator, is a wonderful radio personality, and it gives you a good idea of what it was like to be in the United States during World War II. I was a kid playing USO shows.

You’ve composed so many different works — operas, symphonies, chamber works, a lot of vocal and piano music. What are the pieces you’re proudest of?

Well, I don’t feel that I’m a very good judge of that. The ones that made the biggest difference for me, the big milestones, were an organ piece called Black Host, which I wrote 1967 for the late William Albright (it was the beginning of a kind of breakthrough style for me); and, of course, the Songs of Innocence, which I finished in 1982, would be probably my signature work. Most people who know of me seem to know it. It’s hard to say; there are things that are better known, but does that make them better? I don’t know. Maybe someone likes a piece for solo ocarina that I wrote and forgot about. You do what you do, and it’s like raising children: You really can’t pick a favorite.

A lot of people got to know you as a composer through your work with rags. How did you get interested in that music?

It was thoroughly serendipitous. I’d always been interested in American piano music. I was having lunch with Norman Lloyd, who was the head of the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, and he said there was a very good opera by Scott Joplin. I said, “Who’s Scott Joplin?” and he said he’s the man who wrote “The Maple Leaf Rag.” I called around, and no one had heard of his opera, Treemonisha. At that time I was teaching at Queens College, and I asked Rudi Blesh, who was teaching a jazz course, where I could find the opera. He said, “I have a copy at home!” He got me a copy and the piano rags, and I started recording them, and I told Josh Rifkin about them, and he went off and made a recording; and from being forgotten, Joplin became one of the canon. In the process, I started writing a few myself, and the next thing I knew there was a recording of all 22 by a young pianist named John Murphy. I sort of look at them as my mazurkas.

Your operas — A Wedding, McTeague, A View From the Bridge — all come from very different sources. Why did you decide to adapt those particular stories?

A View From the Bridge was a natural, because you could use the chorus so well. They were an acting presence; they had lines. That was the big problem with [Arthur] Miller’s play: The neighbors couldn’t open their mouths, because if they did, you couldn’t afford to put it on! In the opera, they get to be the real chorus. That’s the thing — you have to find some entrée, otherwise don’t make an opera out of it. You have to find something you can do that can only be done by opera. McTeague was the same way; I thought there was an opera in there, and I thought so way back when I was at Stanford.

Is there another opera in your future?

At the moment, I have a few things floating around, things that people want to do. But nobody’s got any money for new operas — although A View From the Bridge sold better than anything else in the 2002 season at the Met. Someone did a production of [it] with two pianos in a tiny theater in Brooklyn, and I think we’re going to see more “pocket” productions, because a lot of companies are going belly up.

Aside from the finances, how has the business of composing and conducting changed throughout your career?

Actually, I’ve been rather lucky. I have new commissions coming in through 2012. I’ve been commissioned quite steadily for the last few years, and haven’t noticed any real drop. And we’re still doing concerts. I had a bit of a fallow period last year, with four concert cancellations, and a few months when we weren’t touring, but that turned out to be sort of a boon. I’m 71, and getting on planes isn’t fun anymore.

Have the Internet and new technologies made it easier to be a composer?

Not really. There was a festival of my work in Minneapolis a year ago and a reporter called from a free paper there and said, “How come I’ve never heard of you?”

If you could program a dream concert of your music — perhaps works you haven’t heard performed for a while — what would it include?

I would love to see McTeague done again. It would be a natural in San Francisco, because that’s the locale. I’d love to hear the Whitman Triptych and the Fourth Symphony. I should mention that the same weekend as the New Century’s May concerts, the Lark Quartet and the baritone Stephen Salters are playing a new piece of mine at Stanford. It’s called Billy and the Darbies. The texts are by Melville; it has to do with Billy Budd, and darbies is an old English name for handcuffs.

Georgia Rowe has been a Bay Area arts writer since 1986. She is Opera News’ chief San Francisco correspondent, and a frequent contributor to San Francisco Classical Voice, Musical America, San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, and San Francisco Examiner. Her work has also appeared in Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, and Songlines.