|William Bolcom plays games with ISO.|
The new concerto, to be given its premiere May 31 and June 1 at the Hilbert Circle Theatre, allows the prize-winning composer to reach back to his nourishing roots in musical theater and cabaret. It also draws sustenance from one of Bolcom's fellow students of the prolific French master Darius Milhaud, Andre Hajdu, author of several volumes "exploring the creative tension between limits and freedom in improvisation," as Bolcom's program note puts it. Here are some of the explicit, more amusing ways "Games and Challenges" explores that tension.
- A movement at "Spring Training Tempo" features mimed ball-tossing as musicians exchange material after having entered the hall chanting a few words from the Walton-Sitwell piece called "Facade 2." The text? "Indianapolis, and the Acropolis."
- Instructions for a "Gibberish Scherzo" include these reminders: "Remember to converse with others using your 'gibberish'" and "KEEP EVERYTHING FROM GETTING LOUD."
- Challenge #3, "Diplomacy," sets up byplay between a Comedian and a King (played by four horns), running into trouble when the Comedian "steps over the line, making musically obscene gestures."
- Game #5, "Slow and easy wins the race," tips the balance of a word-heavy score all the way toward verbal directions, including this triumphant conclusion to a process it would be a shame to describe: "The last one left ascending to the highest note wins, probably always the piccolo."
Retired after more than 30 years on the music faculty of the University of Michigan, Bolcom long ago wrote two "operas for actors" with lyricist Arnold Weinstein. Both were directed by Paul Sills, whose most famous creation is the Second City troupe in Chicago. Sills' mother, Viola Spolin, wrote "Improvisation for the Theatre," considered a classic of instruction in what has become a major part of an actor's education.
Having recently listened to a recording of "Casino Paradise," one of the Bolcom-Weinstein collaborations, I was struck by how much the goings-on really need to be seen. As excellent as Bolcom's music is, this piece is properly described as "opera for actors." Bolcom can be a dangerously theatrical composer, yet it's a safe bet the new piece will not be musically thin because of its theatrical bent, but all the richer for it.
"Asking an orchestra to improvise isn't generally a good idea," Bolcom told me by phone last week. "It's a very time-intensive thing." That's why the groundwork for "Games and Challenges" was laid with the participating musicians back in January, when the composer came to town and supervised his score's introduction to the ISO and Time for Three. Of course, Zach De Pue, Nick Kendall and Ranaan Meyer have been studying the music fairly consistently for months in the midst of an active touring schedule playing their own music.
"I was very concerned whether it was working at all," Bolcom admitted about the composition's playability, given the strict limits on rehearsal time for new music under which American orchestras work. "But I'm very happy about it. The orchestra was open, and they are hip to it."
Since Bolcom intends to have the work performed by Tf3 with other orchestras, he faced the challenge of making the score intelligible beyond the premiere contingent. "I had to find a way to write it so it could be done without much rehearsal —something that a non-hip orchestra would be able to do. It was the hardest writing I've ever done."
Bolcom has devoted much of his performing and creative life to taking the starch out of the musical profession. A conspicuous sideline over the past four decades has been duo performance of the American popular song — before, during and after the heyday of Tin Pan Alley — with his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris.
Orthodoxy in musical training is on the wane, he is pleased to report. "We're getting over it," Bolcom said. "I probably had a lot to do with it. I got dinged for it, and I endured. I always hated to be restricted by other people's notions."
He added that his biggest influence as a teacher has been "to help people find out what they are. If you played in a garage band, why isn't that in your music? It should go in your music," he said.
Bolcom also encouraged his composition students to stay active as performers, as was common practice for centuries before the last one. "Keep up your instrument, I'd tell them."
There is nothing remotely professorial about one of Bolcom's recent composing-performing efforts, a YouTube video of him singing and playing "Aren't You Ashamed?" an original protest song written in the wake of the U.S. Senate's refusal to pass a bill requiring universal background checks as a condition of gun purchases.
"I've had pretty positive reaction, and 7,000 hits," he reported. "I was channeling Woody Guthrie in that song." Not a name high on most composers' lists of influences, probably.