Katryn Conlin
William Bolcom will be the composer-in-residence for the Moab Music Festival, which starts Thursday.

For composer and pianist William Bolcom, 2008 is a milestone year. He turned 70 in May, and the occasion has been marked by ongoing celebrations across the country.

"Tanglewood celebrated my birthday," Bolcom said in a phone interview, "and there have been a lot of other things going on. I've been on the road a lot this year."

When the Deseret News spoke with him, Bolcom was at the Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, Calif., where his 2004 opera, "A Wedding," was performed in a newly commissioned version for small orchestra. "The students here are fabulous," Bolcom said. "It was a great production."

Bolcom's cross-country travels this year will also bring him to Utah, where he will be the composer-in-residence at the Moab Music Festival, which begins Thursday. At the festival, Bolcom will play some of his own works as well as those of other composers.

Among his own compositions are the Violin Sonata No. 2 ("In Memoriam Joe Venuti") and a movement from the Clarinet Concerto. But the spotlight will definitely be on his one-act comic opera "Lucrezia."

"Lucrezia" is based on Machiavelli's story "La Mandragola" ("The Mandrake Root") that Mark Campbell transformed into a libretto for a comic opera. The work was premiered in March at Michael Barrett's Festival of Song in New York City, along with John Musto's one-act comedy, "Bastianello," also with a libretto by Campbell. Both will receive their western United States premieres in Moab on Sept. 5.

"It's a brilliant text," Bolcom said of "Lucrezia." "Mark took this serious story by Machiavelli and turned it into a wonderful comedy."

In an interview with the New York Times before the opera's premiere last spring, Bolcom described "Lucrezia" as a zarzuela imagined by the Marx Brothers. "I've always loved zarzuelas and I wanted to do one," he said, referring to the popular Spanish stage entertainment that's a cross between operetta and opera. "That gave me the chance to write tangos, jotas, habaneras and other Latin dances."

The work is in English and written for five singers and two pianists (the same scoring as "Bastianello"). Most of the ensemble that premiered the two works in New York will be on hand in Moab: singers Lisa Vroman, Becca Jo Loeb, Paul Appleby, Patrick Mason and Matt Boehler; and pianists Michael Barrett and David Shimoni.

A prolific composer, Bolcom considers himself a "theater man." Among his early works are three operas for actors that he wrote between 1963 and 1970. "I specifically wanted actors and not singers because back then it was hard to understand singers in English. And even today, few have the diction that my wife (mezzo-soprano Joan Morris) has, but it's better now, because these kids are taught better diction. But back in the '60s it was bad. (Composer Luciano Berio) called it British-Italian."

Bolcom's love for the theater stretches back to his days at the University of Washington, where he was an English major. But his musical studies began even earlier. Bolcom started learning the piano when he was 11, and at the same time, he began lessons in composition with George Frederick McKay, a composer whose music blended the European classical tradition with American folk elements and jazz.

Later, Bolcom studied with Darius Milhaud at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., and with Olivier Messiaen at the Paris Conservatory, winning the school's coveted Deuxieme Prix de Composition.

Because of these diverse musical influences, it's difficult to describe Bolcom's style. He writes symphonies and sonatas but also rags. He's well versed in serious classicism, but there are also streaks of jazz running through many of his works, a la Gershwin. For Bolcom, nothing is off limits, and that's what makes his works unique and vibrant. There's an immediacy and also a timelessness to his music.

"I didn't try to be original," Bolcom said. "When I went to school — this was in the '50s — you had to find your own style. It was product branding. You were identified by your style. But I'm not like that. I always wrote what I wanted."

And at 70, Bolcom continues to write. Recent premieres, besides "Lucrezia," include "A Song for St. Cecilia's Day," for chorus and organ, written for the University of Chicago; the Eighth Symphony, performed by James Levine and the Boston Symphony; Octet: Double Quartet, for the Guarneri and Johannes Quartets; and the "Canciones de Lorca," written for Placido Domingo and premiered by him and Carl St. Clair and the Pacific Symphony.

Age hasn't slowed Bolcom one bit. "At 70, I feel like I've reached my late adolescence," he said. He did, however, retire from the University of Michigan earlier this year, where he taught for 35 years. But instead of cutting down his work schedule, not having to teach has given Bolcom more time to compose.

"I have commissions through 2012."

Among these commissions is one by a consortium of 10 orchestras for a large choral symphony based on Walt Whitman's poetry.

And along with everything else he does, Bolcom still knows how to stir up a little controversy. While in Santa Barbara, he and his wife performed a concert of cabaret songs, a show with which they frequently take on tour around the country (and which they've also performed in Salt Lake City).

"The songs deal with the relationship between men and women in realistic terms," Bolcom said. "There is nothing graphic in them. But the reviewer for the local paper thought them risque. And quite honestly, we found that a little surprising."

If you go ...

What: Moab Music Festival

Where: Various venues, Moab

When: Thursday through Sept. 13

How much: Prices vary (see accompanying story)

Phone: 435-259-7003

E-mail: [email protected]