Bolcom Premiere Crowns 80th Year For Chicago Fest

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William Bolcom's 'Millennium: Concerto-Fantasia' commemorates the 80th anniversary of Chicago's Grant Park Music Festival. (Katryn Conlin)
William Bolcom’s new ‘Millennium: Concerto-Fantasia’ closed out the 80th season of the Grant Park Music Festival.
(Festival photos by Norman Timonera)
By Kyle MacMillan

CHICAGO – The Grant Park Music Festival has long been a champion of the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer William Bolcom, presenting, among other things, the first professional performance in 1986 of his landmark three-hour song cycle, Songs of Innocence and of Experience.

Composer WIlliam Bolcom, Grant Park Music Festival, 2014. (Katryn Colin)
WIlliam Bolcom has given multiple Chicago premieres. (Katryn Colin)

So it was only fitting that when it wanted to commission a new work for its 80th anniversary, the free summer festival turned to Bolcom, extending to him at the same time a one-week appointment as composer-in-residence. The Grant Park Orchestra, an ensemble drawn from an array of major orchestras around the country, presented the resulting piece, Millennium: Concerto-Fantasia, during concerts Aug. 15 and 16 under artistic director Carlos Kalmar that were the culmination of the festival’s 2014 season. The festival deserves credit for periodically commissioning new compositions and consistently presenting contemporary and lesser known repertoire.

In his notes on the 15-minute piece, Bolcom wrote that it was inspired in part by a conference he attended in 2000 on multiple aspects of time, including the demarcation of centuries and millenniums and the impact such milestones have on human history, however arbitrary they might be. At the same time, he wrote that he was thinking about musical time versus actual time, as well as the history of the orchestra over the past four centuries. But as compelling as these various ideas are, they were not readily apparent in the resulting opus.

Bolcom with Festival artistic  director Carlos Kalmar.
Bolcom talks about his music with Festival artistic director Kalmar.

Millennium came off as a kind of primordial or, at certain moments, otherworldly soundscape, with a hushed opening that begins with a slow roll of the timpani, conveying a sense of a birth or emergence. As the work progresses, percussive clatter and dissonant blasts are offset by chorale-like moments and voluptuous passages in the strings, with the louder, more aggressive sections overshadowed by the overall feeling of anxious calm. Unlike many of the composer’s other works, which draw on other musical genres, this solidly tonal composition stays within a recognizable contemporary classical aesthetic.

Bolcom calls the piece a “concerto for orchestra with a progressive musical form,” which is to say that nothing returns or repeats. While such an approach can obviously work, this unsettled piece, with its snatches of seemingly disassociated melodic motifs, came off as largely formless, with little to grasp onto as a listener. Though the piece is divided into five sections – “Introitus,” “Rockets,” “Dreamscape: The Love-Dream,” “Rude Awakenings,” and “A Conclusion, For Now” – it was difficult to distinguish one from another.

Pritzker Pavilion from the back of the Millennium Park lawn.
Pritzker Pavilion’s amplification system curves over the Millennium Park lawn.

The concert opened with Tromba Lontana (Distant Trumpet), by John Adams, a four-minute work composed in 1986 as one of 20 fanfares commissioned by the Houston Symphony Orchestra to mark the sesquicentennial of the Republic of Texas’ declaration of independence. Fanfares are usually thought of as bold, grandiose pronouncements, but this subdued, somewhat mysterious work opens quietly, almost tentatively. Despite an underlying ostinato that gives this minimalist, iterative piece a certain rhythmic drive, it remains understated, rather drifting away at the end. Though certainly an unusual and slight work, it received a committed performance that proved compelling.

It was only after hearing the Bolcom premiere that the choice of Adams’ work to precede it made sense. The unexpectedly retiring, reflective nature of the compact fanfare seemed very much in keeping with the spare feel of the concerto.

Bolcom's 1986 Grant Park hit - 'Songs of Innocence and of Experience.'
Bolcom’s William Blake settings were a 1986 festival hit.

Experiencing these two compositions side by side could hardly help but provoke comparisons of these two important American composers, who were born within nine years of each other and share certain similarities, such as a resistance to serialism, which monopolized the classical world when both were budding artists. But, certainly, Adams, who has been willing to embrace contemporary events and sometimes controversial political subjects in certain works, has enjoyed greater visibility than Bolcom, who has never been as avant-garde.

The evening concluded with a vital, entrancing interpretation of Ravel’s complete ballet Daphnis et Chloé, with Kalmar never allowing interest to flag during this 50-minute work. He maintained a supple musical through-line and real sense of the story being told musically while at the same time paying attention to the shape and feel of even the smallest moments. Perhaps most importantly, this evocative performance allowed listeners to visualize the story – this is, after all, a score meant to accompany dance  – with the harrumphing brass, flitting flute, and other instruments offering an abundance of characterful moments.

Carlos Kalmar with the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus. (Norman Timonera)
‘Daphnis et Chloé,’ with vocalise from the Festival Chorus, closed out the program.

Deserving special mention was the festival’s wonderfully responsive chorus, prepared by Christopher Bell, which through wordless vocalise functions in this work as a kind of appendage to the orchestra, ably supporting and enhancing the musical textures and moods. At the same time, there were many notable solo turns in the orchestra, including that of principal flute Mary Stolper.

It was brave of Kalmar and the festival to take on the Ravel in such a vast outdoor venue as the Frank Gehry-designed Pritzker Pavilion along Chicago’s downtown lakefront, with both fixed seats and an open area for lawn chairs and blankets. Despite the venue’s high-quality amplification, it was inevitable that some of the subtle details, especially during several of the work’s hushed moments, would be obscured, if not simply lost, to the abundant ambient noise of the city, which at one point even included a helicopter passing overhead. But such concerns did not deter Kalmar, who made no concessions to the outdoor environment, making sure, for example, that the orchestra and chorus delivered true pianissimos.

Kyle MacMillan recently marked his 25th anniversary as a music critic and reporter. After serving 11 years as fine arts critic for the Denver Post, he is now a free-lance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and writes for such national publications as Opera News and The Wall Street Journal.