The World’s Youngest Septuagenarian

May 26, 2008

William Bolcom is seventy today. In a year of major composer birthdays, this one comes as something of a surprise, perhaps. If anyone is in the high noon of his musical day it is Mr. Bolcom.

Though he is celebrating the day, naturally enough, with a concert (in Israel), a few weeks ago there was an equally characteristic event in New York when a number of his friends and votaries honored him with an evening of performances redolent of his far-flung ventures. There was Derek Bermel, who studied composition with Mr. Bolcom at the University of Michigan, giving a memorable account of the slow movement of his teacher’s Clarinet Concerto. And John Musto, whose musical affinity with Mr. Bolcom is well-known, played one of his own infectious concert rags that happened to have been dedicated to he honoree of the evening. (Mr. Musto also played his own piano version of the Concerto’s orchestral part with Mr. Bermel.) Another figure who drinks deeply of the Fountain of Youth, Robert White, charmed with one of his signature Romantic songs and one of the best Bolcom songs. Sheldon Harnick knocked everyone’s socks off with a song that had been cut from Fiddler on the Roof and was better than most that make it into other musicals. Norton Juster intervened with the only non-musical performance, a hilarious torrent of spoonerisms in honor of the occasion. Other performers included Ursula Oppens, playing a recent major work composed for her by Mr. Bolcom, and Amy Burton, who sparklingly ended the program with songs from the repertory of Yvonne Printemps, as a graceful curtsey to William Bolcom’s long and significant association with the Paris of Milhaud and Messiaen.

Of course a most-anticipated highlight of any festive occasion stemming from the Bolcom creative powerhouse will always spring from his collaborations with Joan Morris. And the pair did not disappoint, since they performed several songs in the very best of their inimitable manner, not forgetting (as a result of a highly appropriate request) to give us what must be the definitive reading of the Kern-Wodehouse classic “Bill.” The eyes of the two performers were not the only ones misted over. The genius of Joan Morris (whom I had last heard, in the fall, singing an unforgettable recital of the complete Bolcom-Weinstein cabaret songs) reveals itself more and more as the years go by, as her art becomes ever more refined.

There continue to be plenty of new works by Bolcom, of course. New York has heard a new symphony and a new opera since the first of the year. I propose to write a good deal more about the contributions of William Bolcom and the endless variety and excellence of his art, which the references here hardly begin to summarize. But for now let it suffice to give thanks for the gift to music, musicians, and music-lovers that is William Bolcom, pianist, composer, teacher — and to think with excitement of what he might do next.

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