Getting It Right

Photo by Stan ShoukEven if William Bolcom's Songs of Innocence and of Experience were less excellent than it mostly is, it would rank as a monument to rampant artistic ambitiousness and, for that matter, sheer artistic gall. The fact that last week's concert at the Orange County Performing Arts Center by the Pacific Symphony was the work's first West Coast hearing—22 years into its life span—should, however, surprise nobody. It isn't easy to market a work lasting three hours (with one intermission), by a contemporary composer not yet a household name, demanding the services of an orchestra, a folk band and a rock combo, plus eight vocal soloists, two choruses and a children's chorus. The first of two performances took place before a smattering of audience, which dwindled further as the evening wore on. None of this had anything to do with the quality of the performance under Carl St. Clair, which was extraordinary top to bottom, or the enterprise of the Pacific Symphony management for producing the work as the centerpiece in a two-week American Composers Festival. Somebody in Orange County is getting things right.

In 1956, the adolescent Bolcom first became obsessed with the 46 doggerel segments of William Blake's ironic, sardonic survey of the human condition; in 1981 the completed musical setting had become an epitome not only of Blake's ecstasies and catastrophes but of Bolcom's own eclectic musical physiognomy. If you know his music at all—the opera A View From the Bridge, recently broadcast by the Met; the slimy gorgeousness of his piano rags; the musicological zeal with which he and his wife, singer Joan Morris, have reconstructed the totality of the American song repertory; the tensile strength of his symphonic works—there should be nothing surprising in the processional over three hours of folk ballads, Handelian pomposities, rock and gut-wrenching outcry.

Moments stand out. A sweet, fragile setting of "The Shepherd" gives way appallingly to a shriek of orchestral pain as Bolcom and Blake go on to survey the underside of life's meaning. For the best known of the poems, the "fearful symmetry" of Blake's "Tyger" is framed in the menacing tone of men's voices hurling out a growling speech-song over a roar of percussion. Near the end the poet visits London, where "the harlot's curse blasts the newborn infant's tear," and Bolcom lights his steps in the glare of screaming synthesizers in "apocalyptic rock tempo."

A bit overstuffed here and there, somewhat raggedy now and then, Songs of Innocence and of Experience still has the feel of a masterpiece. The performance was, in a word, stupendous. Notable among the soloists were the rock vocalist Nathan Lee Graham, the uncredited harmonica virtuoso Tommy Morgan and, of course, Joan Morris, evergreen, enchanting.

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