It's difficult, if not downright impossible, not to like William Bolcom's music. He's an iconoclast who takes the best that European music has had to offer in the past 300 years and blends it with American 20th century idioms.
While the resulting blend of styles isn't new to him (composers, and especially American composers, have been mixing styles for generations), Bolcom has managed to create a musical language that is distinctly his. His music has always come across fresh and original, and not merely imitative. And that has made him one of the most successful and most commissioned composers today.
This year the Moab Music Festival invited him to be its composer-in-residence. This was the first time that Bolcom has been to the festival, and it was a wonderful opportunity to hear some of his works, and also to hear him play a few of his own ragtime pieces and perform together with his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris.
The highlight of this year's festival took place last weekend, when Bolcom's one-act comedy, "Lucrezia," received its western United States premiere, together with its companion work, John Musto's one-acter "Bastianello," likewise a comedy. Both have pungent and wickedly witty librettos by Mark Campbell.
For Musto's "Bastianello," Campbell took an Italian folk tale and turned it into a wonderfully perceptive story peopled with almost childlike characters who delve into the deeper meaning of love and forgiveness.
Bolcom's "Lucrezia," on the other hand, is based on a serious story by Machiavelli that Campbell fashioned into a hilarious tale of lust and greed, played out by characters who are ruthless and manipulative. It's reminiscent of Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" in the manner in which the characters plot to get their way.
Both operas are scored for two pianos and five singers. They were commissioned for and premiered at Michael Barrett's New York Festival of Song last spring. For their Moab debut, both had largely the same ensemble of pianists and singers as the New York production. Performing were pianists Barrett and David Shimoni (replacing Stephen Blier), and vocalists Lisa Vroman, Becca Jo Loeb (replacing Sasha Cook), Paul Appleby, Patrick Mason and Matt Boehler.
I attended the festival last weekend, when the two operas were performed, and I was absolutely captivated by both works. They are the perfect companion pieces in style and content (with just enough differences to contrast and distinguish them) and just the right length for an evening's entertainment (approximately one hour each).
The presentation was extraordinary. Barrett and Shimoni played with dramatic flair and passion, while the singers gave a sterling performance filled with rapturous singing and powerful acting.
Musto's work boasts a sophisticated score peppered with striking harmonies within an overall tonal framework. The music underscores the broad comedy with boldness while also incorporating ingratiating lyricism into the fabric.
The real gem of the two operas, however, is Bolcom's "Lucrezia." Molded in the style of a zarzuela (a popular Latin American type of operetta), it gives him ample opportunity of dotting his score with Spanish dances and songs. And together with the saucy humor of the story, "Lucrezia" quite literally lives up to Bolcom's description of the piece as something "imagined by the Marx Brothers." It's an off the wall farce, but it's certainly not a piece of fluff. Unlike anything by the Marx Brothers, "Lucrezia" has depth, intellectual substance and meaning.At 70, Bolcom doesn't have anything to prove anymore. He did that already a long time ago. He is without question one of the most exciting and dynamic composers today, with a seemingly endless source of inspiration. It's a given that his works will continue to be performed and recorded long after he's written his last measure of music. And until that time comes, Bolcom will remain a major and vibrant figure in classical music.