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Bolcom: Songs of Innocence and Experience

Bolcom: Songs of Innocence and Experience

5.0 2
by Leonard Slatkin
Only a handful of audiences have experienced William Bolcom's Songs of Innocence and Experience since its 1984 premiere, so gratitude is owed to Naxos for the work's first recording, one of the must-hear classical CDs of 2004. Bolcom's massive cycle sets 46 William Blake poems (grouped into nine shorter sequences), lasting over two hours. With the huge


Only a handful of audiences have experienced William Bolcom's Songs of Innocence and Experience since its 1984 premiere, so gratitude is owed to Naxos for the work's first recording, one of the must-hear classical CDs of 2004. Bolcom's massive cycle sets 46 William Blake poems (grouped into nine shorter sequences), lasting over two hours. With the huge orchestra and chorus augmented by a large cast of vocal soloists -- as well as fiddler, harmonica, and electronic instruments -- the song settings veer between choral madrigals, modernist art song, folksong, and even reggae. Hovering in the background are Mahler's all-inclusiveness, Britten's poetic juxtapositions (and his vocal writing), and Bernstein's versatility, but this encyclopedic and eclectic work is still absolutely unique. Bolcom's Songs as a whole convey a grand arch of human existence but will also be appreciated for the charm and expressiveness of individual songs, which invariably marry musical style to poetry in illuminating ways. Leonard Slatkin, a longtime champion of the score, leads a live performance from the University of Michigan (where Bolcom teaches), and the recording preserves the excitement of the occasion. With so many strikingly fine soloists it almost seems unfair to single out Joan Morris (Bolcom's wife and frequent cabaret partner), who adds an earthy touch to some of the popular-style numbers; the young soprano Measha Brueggergosman, who contributes two beautifully lyrical "Songs of Innocence" on the first disc; and the dramatic soprano Christine Brewer, whose powerful "Earth's Answer" sets the tone for the darker "Songs of Experience" that follow. Bolcom is one of America's most accomplished composers; he has a true gift for communicating with audiences in the opera house or the concert hall. The Songs of Innocence and Experience are as rich as any great art, yet accessible through and through -- and this admirable recording should do the job of spreading their renown.

Editorial Reviews

All Music Guide - Richard S. Ginell
From the time he was a teenager, William Bolcom had dreamed of setting William Blake's epic poem collection Songs of Innocence and of Experience to music -- and eventually he did. But it took over a quarter of a century, from the first completed songs at age 17 in 1956 until 1982 when, as a tenured professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Bolcom was finally able to find time to pull it all together. And then Bolcom had to wait another two years for the first performance in Stuttgart, and another 20 years until some record company was enterprising enough to take it on. In the eclectic spirit of Blake, the result is an extraordinary synthesis, a two-hour-and-17-minute song cycle for choirs, vocalists, electric and folk instruments, and symphony orchestra, in which Bolcom throws in just about every style he can think of. All-inclusiveness has been the free-thinking Bolcom's goal in several of his works, for he has never been one to build firewalls between so-called high culture and the vernacular of his time and previous eras. Yet this massive thing goes further in more directions than anything Bolcom has attempted before or since -- and somehow Bolcom has figured out how to dovetail smoothly from one idiom and performing style to another without swerving jaggedly from lane to lane. To cite just a few examples, "The Shepherd" opens with a burst of wild orchestral modernism, but before long we hear fiddles and a harmonica playing a country/western tune in waltz time, sung in appropriate style by Peter "Madcat" Ruth. A spiritual sung in operatic voice by Marietta Simpson, interrupted by a discordant orchestra and children's chorus ("Infant Joy"), is followed by a jazz/R&B number ("The Little Black Boy"), complete with gospel electric piano comping and blues harp. "The Blossom" is treated to a fantastic display of winds tooting and circulating overhead, while "The Chimney Sweeper" is recited with a satirical instrumental background in a throwback to Sir William Walton's "Facade." Bolcom even tries an idea as nutty as a Nocturne for percussion -- albeit very spare, quiet percussion -- to lead off Part III of Songs of Innocence, and it works. The whole thing ends with an extravagant reggae setting of "A Divine Image" involving a sole singer, guitar, and all-out choral/orchestral forces, no doubt observing the Bob Marley prescription "let's get together and feel alright." You get the picture; this is an eclectic circus, but one of great seriousness and often inspired lyrical Americana, as well as playful nose-tweaking. Appropriately, the recording took place on the Ann Arbor campus, with nearly 450 student and professional performers (including Bolcom's wife, singer Joan Morris) on-stage, and Naxos spreads it out on a three-CD set. The songs could have fit comfortably on two discs, but the work's three-part division suggested the extra disc, and at Naxos' super-budget price (only $19.99 list for the set), it isn't much of an issue. Conductor Leonard Slatkin -- an old friend of Bolcom as well as an experienced hand at this piece -- fits all the puzzle parts together with vigor, affection, and a good feeling for the pop-folk elements. Hearing this recording makes the listener wish he/she could have been a music student in Ann Arbor, simply for the privilege of participating in such a diverse, unifying, musically satisfying campus event as this.
New York Times - Anthony Tommasini
A gripping live performance of this ambitious masterpiece.
Gramophone - Peter Dickinson
This unique Blake spectacular makes a cumulative impact that represents Bolcom's wide stylistic embrace at its most ambitious.
Boston Globe - Richard Dyer
The recorded performance is thrilling.
Detroit Free Press - Mark Stryker
The most important classical release of the year.
Minneapolis Star-Tribune - Michael Anthony
A stirring and wonderful performance.
St. Petersburg Times - Bill F. Faucett
Bolcom's 47-song cycle -- one of the grandest achievements in the genre by an American composer -- encompasses a dizzying array of musical styles. While many are expected, many more are surprising, and unexpectedly effective.... Naxos's wonderfully produced three-disc set features Leonard Slatkin leading admirable performances by numerous soloists, choruses and the orchestra of the University of Michigan. [A-]
St. Louis Post-Dispatch - Sara Bryan Miller
A heroic undertaking.... This is one of the most important recordings to appear so far on the Naxos label.
Chicago Tribune - John von Rhein
It is something to cheer about, as loudly as possible, from the mountaintops.

Product Details

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Naxos American

Related Subjects


  1. Songs of Innocence and Experience, for soloists, choruses, and orchestra

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Bolcom: Songs of Innocence and Experience 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you can't attend a performance of this spectacular piece, this is the next best thing. The genius of Bolcom is in making it fit together--and boy does it. (I attended the US premiere, the Slatkin live performance and the Minneapolis performance where the the Blake illuminations--original engravings--projected above the full emnsembles was one of the greatest art performance combinations I've ever witnessed.) On this CD set, the recording artists are all excellent and the University of Michigan low brass and percussion give uniqueness to the recording unlike any other emsemble on the globe.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is the most amazing piece of music I have ever heard. I haven't purchased it yet-- I just heard it on the radio tonight (KUSC Los Angeles)-- and I was absolutely floored! It is true to Blake, and the composition is incredible. I enjoyed every minute of it-- at times, it made me laugh; a surprise lurks around every corner. Buy it! I am about to!