Grant Park premiere honors composer's longtime love affair with Chicago

William Bolcom

Composer William Bolcom on stage at Millennium Park's Pritzker Pavilion. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune / August 9, 2014)

Unless I miss my guess, no American city has done more to advance a composer's international reputation than Chicago has done for William Bolcom in recent decades.

Under two successive regimes, Lyric Opera of Chicago has commissioned and premiered three major operas by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Bolcom, with librettos by the late poet and playwright Arnold Weinstein: "McTeague" in 1992, "A View from the Bridge" in 1999 and "A Wedding" in 2004. Each has gone on to achieve a respectable number of performances beyond Chicago – somewhere between 25 and 30 for "A View from the Bridge" alone, by the composer's reckoning.

Bolcom is back in town this week, serving as composer in residence at the Grant Park Music Festival, where he is overseeing Grant Park Orchestra performances of his symphonic and vocal works. One of these, "Millennium: Concerto-Fantasia," will receive its world premiere, commissioned by the festival for the final concerts of its 80th anniversary season, Friday and Saturday nights at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. Carlos Kalmar will be at the helm.

Bolcom has kept busy composing and, to a lesser extent, playing piano, since his retirement in 2008 from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where he taught composition for 35 years and where he presently serves as professor emeritus.

The title of his Grant Park piece, "Millennium: Concerto-Fantasia," refers both to the futuristic outdoor concert hall where Bolcom's music will take wing this weekend and to the great millennium change of 2000 (or 2001, if you will), which has prompted more anxious questions than rosy predictions, as the composer sees it.

"I'm not sure what's going to happen next – are you? It's one of the most uncertain periods, I think, of any I've ever heard of," Bolcom said in a recent phone interview from the country home outside Ann Arbor where he lives with his wife and frequent concert partner, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris.

"So many of the cultural institutions of the previous millennium are now under heavy review, and one of them on the endangered list may be the orchestra itself. Many in our society do not relate to this culture at all. It is clearly up to us in (classical) music to invite these people into our enclave and to the many beauties waiting for them."

A concerto for orchestra whose six continuous sections unfold like chapters of a novel, "Millennium" finds Bolcom addressing, in the abstract, a fateful question: How will the symphony orchestra face this brave new musical world going forward?

The result is a pocket history of the symphony orchestra as it has evolved over the last four centuries, in which various solo instrumentalists and orchestral choirs engage with one another for some 22 minutes.

"The final section, 'A Conclusion, for Now,' won't provide the comforting closure of many large orchestral pieces," the composer says. Nonetheless, he adds, the work as a whole "has the positive charge of being premiered in a millennial park in a vibrant, evolving city."

Bolcom was a natural to provide a celebratory work to cap Grant Park's 80th anniversary, says Kalmar.

"Last year, when we were thinking about commissioning a new piece to honor this milestone, we asked ourselves which composers closely linked to the city could write something for us. Bill Bolcom's name came immediately to mind. Knowing how busy he is, I worried that our request would come too late. Fortunately, he was available."

Bolcom week at Grant Park also will include a selection of Bolcom's wry and frisky "Cabaret Songs," to texts by Weinstein. To the set of seven songs Bolcom orchestrated in 2007 for a Deutsche Grammophon album by Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman, he has added, at Kalmar's request, two more orchestrated songs, "Fur" and "Places to Live." All will be sung at Wednesday's concert by members of Lyric Opera's Ryan Opera Center.

The loss of dexterity in Bolcom's right hand over the last decade has curtailed his piano playing and made transferring his musical ideas to score paper more laborious, the 76-year-old composer-pianist told me. But with the help of a graduate-level assistant at the university and the use of musical notation software, Bolcom says he's coping well enough.

"I suppose I could regain some finger and hand mobility if I practiced an awful lot, but if I did that, I wouldn't have any time to compose," he says.

The composer recently added another work to his sizable orchestral catalog: "Circus Overture," a 70th birthday gift to conductor Leonard Slatkin, a longtime champion of Bolcom's music who led the premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra last week at Tanglewood.

The music world will not have long to wait to hear another Bolcom opera. The Minnesota Opera recently announced it has commissioned him and librettist Mark Campbell to write a comic opera, "Dinner at Eight," based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. The company has scheduled the world premiere for its 2016-17 season in St. Paul.

Bolcom says he originally approached Lyric Opera about taking on the project but was told there was no room to fit it into a schedule that's fully booked for the next five years. Even given that disappointment, the composer says he hasn't lost hope of eventually adding a fourth opera to his triple crown of made-in-Chicago stage works.

"If the late Elliott Carter could compose his first opera at 90," Bolcom observes, "maybe I will have a couple more up my sleeve by the time I reach that age."

Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra will be joined by singers from the Ryan Opera Center for a program that holds William Bolcom's "Cabaret Songs" and works by Mozart and Piston, at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. The Grant Park Music Festival season will conclude with the world premiere of Bolcom's "Millennium: Concerto-Fantasia," sharing the program with Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloe," at 6:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park, Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street; free; 312-742-7638, gpmf.org.

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