Serious Symphony By An Entertainer William Bolcom's New Work Debuts Here Tonight

Posted: January 11, 1990

William Bolcom carried the score to his new Symphony No. 5 under his arm, but what Philadelphia Orchestra players wanted to talk to him about was lime Jell-O.

The orchestra will premiere his symphony tonight at the Academy of Music. But backstage yesterday, Bolcom embodied the split musical personality that has him one day performing cabaret songs with his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, and the next standing in the academy acknowledging applause for a symphony.

The composer and his wife were using this week in Philadelphia to rehearse the symphony and to deliver to the American Music Theater Festival the score for Casino Paradise, the piece Bolcom has just completed for performances here in April. They performed their cabaret songs in the festival three years ago, surveying the Gay Nineties, theater songs and, inevitably, "Lime Jell-O," Bolcom's bouncy song describing the lethal home-cooked dishes served at church fairs and library benefits.

As orchestra players gathered around the pair backstage, it was clear that the satiric song had struck a fundamental chord. The way to an orchestra's heart may be through its recognition of dangerous casseroles and desserts like ''lime Jell-O, marshmallow cottage cheese surprise."

It was also clear that people smile when they talk about Bolcom's music.

Because he writes cabaret songs; because he looks, at 51, like a cheerful bear in baggy black sweater and corduroys, and because he exudes high-pitched energy, he is sometimes seen as a pop writer and full-time entertainer. But his entertainments are an aspect of a complex musical life.

"When you're out there performing a lot, you keep an awareness of timing that, I think, helps me in writing for orchestra," he says. "But smiling is not the right response for the (new) symphony. It's not funny; it's really rather dark."

The symphony bears a dedication to the orchestra and to Stephen Sell, the orchestra's late executive director, who died in May.

"Steve and I go way back to his days with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra"

from 1969 to 1973, Bolcom says. "In 1987, I was composer-in-residence with the orchestra at the Saratoga Festival, and we stayed close. Steve was a nice guy."

The commission came through a phone call from Richard Wernick, the orchestra's consultant on new music. Bolcom says, "Of course, I wanted to write for this orchestra, and it seemed a nataural thing to do. I did it rather quickly, but that's the way I work. I think about something for a long time, and then when it's ready, it comes out fast.

"I had been talking with my publisher after I had finished my Fourth Symphony, and he told me I didn't need to write another. 'People will think you're Alan Hovhaness,' he said. There's no danger there; he's half a century ahead of me - and will stay there." He laughs. (Hovhaness has written more than 50 symphonies.)

"I had started a symphony, but realized it was supposed to be what became my Clarinet Concerto. Then I started some etudes for orchestra, but after I had done a few pages, I saw that that was my symphony. When I knew that, the music came very quickly. I finished the first movement last March; finished the third movement in May on my birthday, and completed it in June.

"Steve (Sell) knew I was writing it, but I regret I never got to show it to him. I had last seen him in March, and he died before I finished it."

The work has other serious subtexts. The second movement is an orchestral version of the last of Bolcom's 12 Piano Etudes, which he had been unable to complete. "After (pianist) Paul Jacobs died, I realized I had to finish them. I had showed the first ones to Paul, who said he wished he could play them, but was too weak by then.

"The third movement is dedicated to a longtime friend who was going through a very unhappy divorce. Of course it's like Mahler; every symphony is like Mahler." In that movement, instruments combine the wedding march from Lohengrin and "Abide With Me" and play at tempos "like a wedding or a funeral."

Bolcom says the symphony's genesis simply affirms the way he works. He reads widely, performs frequently with his wife around the country, and meets students at the University of Michigan, where he teaches. And when it is time to write a piece, he finds it is ready.

"This symphony is very tight, no looseness or meandering in it, and it's dark," Bolcom says. "I hadn't meant to write a dark work; it just came."

Bolcom says that writing for players he knows - in the Philadelphia Orchestra, in this case - is central to the way his music emerges.

"I got to know them in Saratoga," he says of the Philadelphians. "I wrote those violin solos for Norman (Carol, the concertmaster), and I could hear the solo wind players while I wrote their parts. I like these guys."

After the premiere performances here, and the conferences with the American Music Theater Festival producers about Casino Paradise, Bolcom and Morris become entertainers. They'll fly to Minneapolis to perform cabaret songs and, inevitably, "Lime Jell-O."

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