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Many years Later, a Composer Revisits the Piano Concerto


It took the composer William Bolcom over 40 years to follow his first piano concerto with a second one.

When Bolcom was putting the ending touches on that first concerto, in 1976, he had already gained fame as a part of the era’s ragtime revival. A pianist as well, he interpreted pieces by Scott Joplin and other originators, while also contributing to a latest wave of writing for the shape, on albums like “Heliotrope Bouquet.”

Milestones got here after the concerto’s premiere. Bolcom’s prismatic “Twelve Latest Etudes for Piano” — which contained an important dollop of ragging energy — won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1988. That decade, his expansive and astute setting of William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and of Experience” was a polyglot achievement, filled with music which may take stylistic succor from reggae or Tin Pan Alley, from one minute to the subsequent.

Whilst symphonies and other works for soloist and orchestra kept coming from the Bolcom workshop, no latest piano concerto followed — a peculiar development, given his own stature as a keyboardist. But this April, that streak got here to a detailed when Igor Levit and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra gave the world premiere performance of Bolcom’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

Don’t trouble asking whether the premiere took place in america, where major presentations of music by Bolcom, an American, have fallen out of fashion. As a substitute, this latest concerto was presented in Germany, on the Heidelberger Frühling Festival. That organization, which commissioned Bolcom’s latest concerto with Levit in mind, thankfully also documented the performance. And recently, it posted the video on YouTube.

In a phone interview, Levit described Bolcom as one in all “the very essential composers of our time,” and in addition recounted with delight the best way by which this composer, now 84, participated within the rehearsal process: by video conference, from his home in Ann Arbor, Mich. “You’ll be able to tell that this piece, and writing music — any music — really means the world to him,” Levit said. “He was, in probably the most beautiful way, childishly completely happy.”

Bolcom, in a joint interview from his home with Joan Morris — his wife and collaborator, who finished some sentences and added cabaret-style jokes — recalled seeing, and having fun with, Levit’s performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 at the Gilmore Piano Festival, in Kalamazoo, Mich., in 2018.

“I said,” Bolcom added, “‘Now it is a guy I could write for.’”(He also called the Beethoven “probably my favorite concerto.”)

“I’m taken with a dialogue,” he said, describing his ideal relationship between a pianist and an orchestra, “like in a Mozart concerto, by which no person is expecting the opposite person to attempt to win over the opposite.”

Bolcom’s second piano concerto, at a running time of 24 minutes, reflects that balance while synthesizing various musical traditions. Within the early going, some tender yet mystic motifs suggest the songful chromaticism of Olivier Messiaen. But before long, in a transition that few composers could handle so successfully, stark pianistic marching leads the orchestra into the punchy environs of percussive Americana.

In an accompanying documentary that the festival produced and posted online, Levit says that Bolcom described the concerto to him as “a delicate piece for non-gentle times.” There’s a touch, there, of Bolcom’s proclivity for political commentary. He described the finale of his Trio for Horn, Violin and Piano, from 2017, as a “resolute march of resistance” in response to the 2016 presidential election. And way back to that first piano concerto, written in the course of the post-Watergate bicentennial of American independence, Bolcom wrote that it was one in all “one in all the bitterest pieces” he’d conceived to this point.

But such regular disillusionment has not staggered Bolcom’s imagination. Whereas his first concerto ends in a parade of riotous, Ives-like quotations — a cynical pileup of putatively patriotic melodic sentiments — the second is less obvious in its moods. Its melancholy, though not possible to miss, can also be leavened by some ebullient twists, all of that are well served by Levit and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Elim Chan.

This mix of pleasure and an almost pained, Romantic craving likewise involves the fore in one other recent recording of Bolcom’s music — by the pianist Marc-André Hamelin, who first recorded “Twelve Latest Etudes” and has also released an album with the primary piano concerto.

Hamelin’s latest recording, “Bolcom: The Complete Rags,” is — truth in titling! — the one survey of this catalog that manages to brush up a couple of stray syncopated pieces the composer has ventured this century. If it lacks only a touch of the rambunctious energy that Bolcom himself delivered to rags like “Seabiscuits Rag,” as heard toward the tip of “Heliotrope Bouquet,” Hamelin’s interpretations are a wonderful, moving account of this lushly complex music.

Bolcom’s ability to maneuver between poles of emotion, in his rags and concertos, is an element of the good charm of his music. Once I asked him concerning the surprising appearance of an electrical keyboard part in his Symphony No. 3, I described it as sometimes sounding like a parody of midcentury American modernism and at other points as paying homage to fusion-era Miles Davis. He set free a belly laugh.

“To begin with: What’s not interesting to me is to make all of it completely explicable,” he said. “It’s not explicable to me. I mean, I fly by the seat of my pants, musically.” And although he declined to be pinned down on any point of musical reference, he did admit, “For the reason that starting, I’ve had love for the theater.”

That’s evident not only in his comic operas, similar to “Lucrezia,” but additionally within the wild transitions embedded inside his instrumental works. The brand new piano concerto, too, manages to surprise at the same time as it shouldn’t be interested merely in shock value.

For Levit, the concerto has “a fantastic mastery of writing and level of seriousness and dedication to each little detail.” But for all that refinement, Levit said, it also shares a key trait with music of American artists like Esperanza Spalding, Fred Hersch and Frederic Rzewski — all of whom Levit cited as carrying a type of the colloquial spirt that can also be present in Bolcom’s music.

“They never lost the connection to the individuals who would hearken to the music,” Levit said. “This wire to the audience, the wire to the dimension within the hall, is de facto something which I find deeply inspiring.”

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