William Bolcom's Eighth Symphony

William Bolcom is a profoundly sympathetic composer and person. Earlier in his career he was known for his pre-rock pop-song collaborations with his wife, the singer Joan Morris, and for classical works that embraced every kind of musical idiom with a Whitmanesque fervor.

The apex of that era was his masterpiece, the mammoth "Songs of Innocence and Experience" (1984), a setting of Blake's complete poems of that name. To hear the last song, "A Divine Image," as a huge orchestral reggae "in memory of Bob Marley" was a trumpet call for post-modernist eclecticism like no other.

More recently, to my ears, a kind of gray shadow of classical respectabilty has settled over Bolcom's music. Neither the huge operas "McTeague" nor "A View from the Bridge" fulfilled his earlier promise (I haven't heard "A Wedding," from 2004).

James Levine has been a lifelong Bolcom advocate, so when word came that the new Bolcom Eighth Symphony (first heard with the Boston Symphony at Symphony Hall and then in its New York premiere on Monday night at Carnegie Hall) was a setting of four extended Blake poems, my own optimistic curiosity perked right up.

The result was gigantic and impressive, but to my ears angular and empty. Blake's bizarre images of the apocalypse tumbled forth and the superb Tanglewood Festival Chorus sang on and on, without the vernacular drive or melodic elegance of Bolcom's earlier work or, needless to say, the popular songs he has championed.

But then, in the last five minutes, Bolcom abandoned dogged text-setting and let his musical impulses loose. Initially a setting of the last line ("For every thing that lives is Holy") of the last movement, "A Song of Liberty," it began as a layered, overlapping, fugato-like choral effusion and evolved into a Mahlerian orchestral hymn. Bernard Holland in The Times pronounced himself deeply moved, and so was I.

March 5, 2008 12:13 PM |


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