By Kyle MacMillan
CHICAGO – William Bolcom is the grand old man of the Grant Park Music Festival. The summer series in downtown Chicago began its close association with the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer in 1986 with one of the early performances of his choral cycle, Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Four years ago, Grant Park summer music marked its 80th anniversary with the world premiere of Bolcom’s Millennium: Concerto-Fantasia.
In observance of Bolcom’s 80th birthday, the festival offered its first performances, July 6 and 7, of his Symphony No. 4 (The Rose) and the final movement, Machine, from his Symphony No. 5 as part of a weeklong residency. Coming on the heels of July 4, these works by this most American of composers seemed an ideal way to extend the celebration of Independence Day.
The concerts, which took place in the Frank Gehry-designed Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, were fittingly overseen by guest conductor Dennis Russell Davies, who is well regarded for his devotion to new music and has had his own long relationship with Bolcom. Davies led the world premieres of three of the composer’s operas, commissioned by the Lyric Opera of Chicago from 1992 through 2004.
Davies’ familiarity with Bolcom’s music was abundantly in evidence during the first of these two concerts as he delivered cogently shaped, fully involved readings that showed off both of the composer’s works to full advantage.
The Symphony No. 4, which runs a little more than half an hour, was inspired by the poetry of Theodore Roethke, who taught a course that the Seattle-born Bolcom took at the University of Washington when he was still considering a major in literature. The composer has made his teacher’s poems the basis of several works, including the 1975 song cycle Open House. Bolcom was especially taken with The Rose, which evokes the distinctive sounds and sights of the Puget Sound, where Roethke died in 1963, as well as memories of the poet’s life.
Although Bolcom’s piece does not have the same emotional power as, say, Mahler’s elegiac song-symphony Das Lied von der Erde, it is nonetheless entrancing in its economical, somewhat elusive way. Bolcom has taken what might best be described as a recitative approach to setting Roethke’s poem in the longest of the work’s two movements. The vocal writing is more declarative and straightforward and not as overtly emotional as that in Das Lied or Schubert’s art songs. Bolcom seems intent on letting the words do most of the work. Aside from a few instrumental interludes, which the composer has invested with a full-bodied melodic richness, much of the accompaniment is spare — a sustained chord or a slight ornamentation. The soloist sings some stanzas a cappella and others are simply spoken, forgoing music altogether.
Bolcom’s wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, served as the soloist for the 1987 world premiere of the Symphony No. 4. Taking that role in this performance was Kelley O’Connor, a distinguished mezzo-soprano who has devoted much of her career to concert works like this one. Her appealingly dusky voice and straightforward, unaffected delivery were ideally suited to the work, much of which is situated in the lower register, and she made the most of it. She drew maximum emotive power from Bolcom’s setting, being careful not to push too hard or to oversell the stanzas and to rely, instead, on directness and clarity.
Preceding the slow, meditative song setting is a shorter, all-instrumental movement. In an introduction from the podium, Daviies quoted Bolcom’s description of the music as a “long, vigorous upbeat.” This boisterous, rhythmic section combines clattering percussion, flitting strings, and rumbling basses in what is aptly titled Soundscape. Rather than proceeding in some step-by-step progression, the section is more of a sonic patchwork, with melodic snatches, big chords, and discordant mini-climaxes intersecting, overlapping, and ultimately coalescing in an unsettled whole.
Putting a winning exclamation point on the evening was Machine from Bolcom’s Symphony No. 5, which the Philadelphia Orchestra premiered in 1990 with Davies on the podium. This four-minute capstone to the Fifth Symphony is like a thundering locomotive: big, brash, and quintessentially American.
Following a familiar formula, the Grant Park Music Festival offset the two contemporary and lesser-known works by Bolcom with one of the most popular stalwarts from the orchestral repertoire — Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. It would be easy to play this work on auto-pilot, but Davies made sure that didn’t happen. Instead, he delivered a lively take — a nicely disciplined interpretation that was never bombastic or overdone. He brought out its varied moods and textures and paid close attention to dynamics, not shying away from the work’s pianissimos despite the concert’s sometimes unforgiving outdoor setting.
The Tchaikovsky was a perfect showcase for the fine Grant Park Orchestra, which consists of musicians drawn from ensembles across the country. There was much to admire, including the crisp brass sound and some first-rate woodwind playing. The only blot on the performance was an oddly inert French horn solo at the beginning of the second movement that included a bobbled note.
Kyle MacMillan served as the classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and Modern Luxury and writes for such national publications as the Wall Street Journal, Opera News, Chamber Music, and Early Music America.