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Wednesday, May 01, 2013

A Case for Diversity

From the Vault Dept.: The three weeks of Philadelphia Orchestra concerts at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center this summer formulaically rehash what’s safe and – apart from a concerto by Jennifer Higdon – predictable. It wasn’t always this way, but you have to go a considerable distance back to remember how it was. Here’s one of my contributions, from 1987.


WILLIAM BOLCOM IS A busy man. He missed his own riot a few years back. “You kind of like to be in on that sort of thing,” he says, speaking from his New York apartment. It took place in France, where passions run high in the new music biz (Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” is the best-known example of Parisian passion), and Bolcom puts it down to the fact that his work employed elements of ragtime.

William Bolcom
“People rushed on stage and there were fistfights. It was a great shock. And a scandal. It sounded like fun.”

Bolcom comes to Saratoga for a few weeks this summer as composer-in-residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Several of his works will be performed, including his orchestration of a long-neglected ballet by Cole Porter.

“It will be nice working with Dennis Russell Davies again,” he says, referring to the orchestra’s principal summer guest conductor. “We’ve known each other for over twenty years, beginning when he was fledgling conductor of the Juilliard Repertory Ensemble.”

Bolcom’s own background goes well into the pre-natal time when his mother played classical recordings ceaselessly during his gestation in order to persuade him to take on music as a career.

If anything, it may have worked too well: Bolcom describes himself as a neo-classicist and proves that description by trying his hand at many diverse musical subjects. “Everything I do has to do with music,” he explains, “ even though it may not fit into this or that drawer. It gets to be a problem when you have to categorize what you do. ASCAP and BMI [the two major royalty-distribution organizations] have different collection rates and different rates of payment for popular and classical works. Classical is rated per minute, popular per song.”

Bolcom sees the need for more homogeneity, and promotes it in his work as composer in residence with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and on the faculty of the University of Michigan. “I hope the result will be a pipeline that gets people working together. We need to develop a way to include younger players of diverse backgrounds making music.”

As a composer, Bolcom tries to assimilate his environment into his work, an attitude that’s as much a rebellion as anything else. “The history of American serious composing has always held a colonial attitude. If it comes from somewhere else, it must be better – that kind of thing. That’s why you had so many American composers trying to sound like the Germans or the French. It really wasn’t until Charles Ives came along that we got a truly unique voice.”

On the SPAC program are several diverse works of his, including “Ragomania” this evening (Thursday), a tribute to a styling Bolcom helped promote even in the days before “The Sting.”

Tomorrow’s program includes his Symphony No. 3, and Wednesday evening the orchestra plays his orchestration of Cole Porter’s “Within the Quota.”

”Bob Kimball, an American musical theater scholar, found a piano score of this work in 1969 in the stacks at the Yale library. It had only been performed once, by a Swedish ballet company. He brought it to me and I made an arrangement that the Yale Band performed.

“American Ballet Theater decided to revive the ballet in 1970 and asked me for a full orchestration.

“You have to understand that Porter could not orchestrate. I saw some attempts he made and they were not very good. He was a methodical composer and it’s interesting to know that those songs of his that flow so effortlessly were really the result of a struggle. On the manuscripts, every note is practically burned into the paper.

“Porter got Charles Koechlin to do the orchestration of this ballet, but he wasn’t very happy with it – he didn’t think it was jazzy enough. Nevertheless, before I took on the job of making a new arrangement, I tried and tried to get hold of the old one.

“I talked to Vladimir Golschmann, who conducted it in the ‘20s, and discovered that the score does exist in a dance museum in Stockholm. But the curator that said I couldn’t have it. She had an ‘it’s mine!’ attitude to the point of madness.

“The ABT premiere was fast approaching, so I found myself holed up in a tiny hotel room in Paris, Air Expressing the pages to my copyist in New York. The parts were printed and delivered to ABT the morning of the premiere.

“This was Porter’s only essay in a non-musical theater work, and it was written well before any of his initial Broadway successes.”

Bolcom’s interest in popular songs extends to those songs of Porter and many others; he and his wife, Joan Morris, have recorded many albums of little-known (and well-known) material, and will perform their survey of songs in the Spa Little Theater Aug 2 and 3 at 8:15 PM.

Metroland Magazine, 30 July 1987

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