February 5, 2016

  • New Music by Bolcom


    Bolcom: Canciones de Lorca/Prometheus
    Rene Barbera, tenor. Jeffrey Biegel, piano. Pacific Chorale; Pacific Symphony/Carl St. Clair
    Naxos 8.559788
    Total Time:  54:52
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****


    Naxos has had a great history of bringing modern music and American contemporary concert music to a wide audience.  They have also had a good history of capturing a number of great American regional orchestras at their best.  This new release does both in bringing to disc two recent works by William Bolcom featuring a work for tenor and one for piano.

    The opening piece is an orchestral song cycle featuring poetry by Federico Garcia Lorca.  Placido Domingo commissioned and premiered the work in 2006 with the Pacific Symphony.  The young celebrated tenor Rene Barbera performs here from a concert recorded in 2013.  Bolcom chose seven poems for the cycle.  These allow him to explore a bit of flamenco style and Lorca’s connection to more popular forms.  There is also an opportunity to delve in to some of the poet’s sense of humor, drama, passion, and playfulness as well as his more mystical side.  The music pays tribute to Argentinean, Galician, and Andalusian musical styles.  The opening “Balance” provides a more serene start to the proceedings, almost like a ballad that then shifts into the more dramatic “The Unfaithful Housewife” with interesting musical colors and dramatic style.  The solo line has the most “Spanish” sounding quality, while the orchestral commentary utilizes percussion to add additional scenic flair.  The orchestra tends to provide a somewhat connective tissue approach to suggest shifts in mood in the poetry.  Sometimes the lyric lines feel like they are popular songs with a more modern orchestral accompaniment moving along underneath.  This is especially true of the “Sonnet of a Sweet Lament.”  The final two movements are musical depictions of first New York—which is purely orchestral; and then of Cuba.  Here Bolcom’s musical language is reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein’s music.  Rene Barbera does a fine job here and there are times when one can certainly hear how Bolcom was paying close attention to Domingo’s strengths and range as Barbera’s performance is certainly to be greatly admired on its own for its clarity and emotional interpretation.  The orchestra does a great job here as well perfectly capturing the sense of energy and stylistic qualities of the music.

    Bolcom explores the Prometheus legend as a metaphor for our time in the second work on the disc.  The inspiration comes both from the events of September 11th as well as Lord Byron’s poetic exploration of this story.  This brings together another artistic piece that appeared at the cusp of the Industrial Revolution a fact that is then juxtaposed to the precipice we may currently be at in our own time.  The piece is composed for the same forces as Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, itself a bit of a dumping ground for everything from piano sonata, to concerto, to string quartet, to large-scale choral piece.  The structure here is also somewhat similar with its opening piano solo of dense textures before the choir appears with somewhat chanted Sprechstimme style creating a sort of macabre feel.  A somewhat stark feel continues as the orchestra gradually enters with forceful, and often jagged interjections that move fluidly in and out of dissonant clusters with intensity created both through dynamic shading and sheer number of orchestral families involved.  This is set aside the dark, visceral solo work by Jeffrey Biegel.  Here is a piece of disillusionment, anger, frustration, and a sense of inevitability that can lead to gray tonal landscapes.  That does not mean there are not glimmers of beauty and hope.  When they occur, it is quite striking; a shift that begins for the final third with its almost magical expectation and hope.  Again, the orchestra is superbly captured and the chorus balance also works well with the music carefully put together to create a powerful experience.  Mild audience noise is apparent in spots here, but not distracting.

    Bolcom’s music always tends to flirt with tonality and dissonance in ways that make it dramatic and equally accessible.  The two pieces here are almost polar opposites in their subject matter.  Both are moving experiences.