New Music Concerts : “William Bolcom for Two Pianos” reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, October 21, 8 pm, The Music Gallery, Toronto.

How often do you come out of a new music concert humming a tune that seems even lovelier the next morning? William Bolcom’s “Through Eden’s Gates”(1969/1994) will do you like that.

Bolcom (1938-), a one-time serialist composer in the vein of Stockhausen and Berio, a student of Milhaud and Messaien, let the 60’s revival of ‘ragtime’ get under his skin. He cross-bred it with pop, folk, Latin, late romantic salon, and ‘serious’ musical idioms, till his own musical style emerged, a music about which one writer has said, “You’re never certain what’s around the corner—but you sure as hell know when it arrives.”

The Bergmann’s, Elizabeth and Marcel, as you can see, are an attractive couple, one that combines virtuosic dedication with the instincts of professional entertainers who love their music. They opened this recital (recorded complete on a Naxos CD 8.559244 ) with the lovely “Recuerdos”(1993), three sexy, catchy pieces based on 19th Century Latin American folk dances blended with ragtime into a captivating 14 minutes, characteristically Bolcom, full of harmonic surprises, sonic eruptions, bouncy basslines, leaps, and tricky rhythms. The Bergmanns’ sense of syncopation, blurring, slurring and delaying of phrases, their modulations of tempo and dynamics articulated the amazing detail of Bolcom’s music.

There followed a Bolcom masterpiece–“Frescoes”(1974). Bolcom’s flambouyant composition requires the pianists to improvise parts of the score and to double on harpsichord and harmonium, sketching in broad quick strokes wild figures of this highly organized collage inspired by the visionary frescoes of the English mystical poet/painter, William Blake (1757-1827).

In the opening segment entitled “War in Heaven”, the stereo effect of two pianos is made especially vivid by deliberately unsynchronized playing. Elizabeth’s piano thundering tone clusters fortissimo is answered by Marcel pumping out solemn churchly organic strains on a harmonium. As Elizabeth turns away from the piano, her contributions to the left ear desaturate down to pale, wispy tones of the harpsichord and one begins to feel as if on a carnival ride through the ‘Haunted Chapel’ and ‘The Monkey House’.

From time to time one or both players is tinkering away inside their instruments and the geometry of the sound fabric becomes unstable, hard to locate in space, the auditory equivalent of holographic mobiles, shifting from the colours of harmonic chords to dissonant minimalist series, the booming of fist on piano keys, the mournful moan of harmonium, all running down to silent rest. Here is a page of the score.

Bolcom’s “Sonata for Two Pianos in One Movement”(1993) alternates passages of his tough, dissonant, ‘pre-ragtime’ style with lovely, lyrical, Chopinesque melodies and, thank goodness, syncopated bits of eroded ragtime, blues, and Greek rhythms. Though ‘entertaining’ because of Bolcom’s infinite variety, the piece comes off as ‘serious’ music and is allowed to end by fading away.

Which bring us full circle, to exit this review “Through the Gates of Eden.” What could Bolcom have had in mind in describing his work as a piece that “conjures the image of Adam and Eve calmly cakewalking their way out of Paradise.” It sounds like the spirit of Mark Twain remarking in his democratic way that it was like high-stepping through the swinging doors of a saloon, arm in arm with your lover, warmed by the good times, but after all, it is closing time.

This event is co-sponsored by New Music Concerts and The Music Gallery

Comments are closed.