Hyperion Records

Concerto for piano and large orchestra
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William Bolcom, born in Seattle, Washington, in 1938, is one of the most vivid characters amongst living American composers. As a performer he is a wonderfully idiomatic ragtime pianist and a stylish accompanist in all kinds of music, especially the repertoire he has pioneered with his wife Joan Morris. His refusal to segregate popular and classical idioms is an attractive feature of his Piano Concerto, a 1976 commission from the Seattle-based group PONCHO. The first performance was given at Seattle by the composer with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra under Milton Katims on 8 March 1976.

In his programme notes for the first performance of the Concerto Bolcom referred to it as ‘one of the bitterest pieces’ he had yet written. This was largely his reaction to the whole question of the American Bicentennial celebrations. With John Cage he wondered what could be celebrated with a straight face. However, it is difficult for music to be specifically ironic and Bolcom discovered that listeners enjoyed the riotous potpourri of popular tunes in his finale in much the same way that they respond to the last movement of Shostakovitch’s Fifth Symphony – at face value. He has pointed out that the Concerto is ‘a very direct piece … and in many ways a wry commentary on the Gershwin F major Concerto, particularly in its episodic form’. This does emerge, but overall, like Bolcom’s earlier ‘Commedia’ and later Fifth Symphony, the Concerto mixes styles in a way that is absolutely personal in a context where the soloist is far removed from the victorious hero of some nineteenth-century concerto scenarios.

I: Andante spianato – Allegro
The first movement opens with the simplest kind of C major walking bass from the piano in a way which recalls Milhaud, one of Bolcom’s teachers, or the opening of Copland’s Clarinet Concerto. The brass poke in some blue notes and then everyone starts to decorate. The episodes which follow alternate more dissonant styles with popular types. The piano hints at habanera, introduces pop music clichés, and then explores the sound of harmonics. There’s an intimate solo with a Spanish tinge which the piano shares around before getting into stride tempo to build to the climax. When it comes this is the opening C major texture exultant in the full orchestra followed by what the composer originally called ‘a terse, tragic coda’.

II: Regrets
If Bolcom had not told us that the second movement opens with what he calls ‘an ironic answer to the lovely clarinet beginning of the Gershwin Concerto slow movement’ we would never have guessed. There is much delicate question-and-answer between the soloist, marked ‘conversational’ to begin with, and the mood is introspective as if to create a foil for what comes next.

III: Finale
The slow movement runs straight into the finale, which is a mix-up that Bolcom tells us is ‘ridiculous and terrifying at the same time’. Charles Ives, with some of the same tunes, taught us the uninhibited enjoyment of such capers and it is notable that Bolcom completed his Concerto only two years after the Ives centenary. He has said that the finale is ‘intentionally like one of those TV cavalcades of the period, with every patriotic emblem heaved at us all at once in a mad collage’. It starts with fragments of ‘Yankee Doodle’; then introduces ‘Dixie’s Land’ and ‘Columbia the Gem of the Ocean’; then there’s a ‘pseudo-patriotic’ theme featured by the piano, but introduced just before by the cornet, which is Bolcom’s own. It feels like a nineteenth-century popular march complete with the barbershop chord routines. There’s a sentimental cornet solo in the middle, supported by bell effects, which turns into a country waltz then ups it into Broadway tempo. Occasionally the piano tries to be more sober – but not for long – and the ‘pseudo-patriotic’ theme comes back in the full orchestra with all the exhilaration of the real thing. Nobody but Bolcom could have dreamt up such a menagerie of Americana – triumphant in the end.

from notes by Peter Dickinson © 2000

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