, February 2006
Think of this as an episode of "Behind the Music'' for the classical set.
By now, the news that a recording of Ann Arbor and University of Michigan composer William Bolcom's epic "Songs of Innocence and of Experience'' won four Grammy awards recently is pretty well known. And although winning the Grammys was a big deal in itself, the effort that went into making the recording - a joint venture between the University Musical Society, Ann Arbor's major-league arts presenter, and the U-M School of Music - was even bigger.
Imagine a cast of nearly 450 people that included six different ensembles and 12 soloists. Imagine trying to juggle music from classical to reggae, country and beyond. Imagine trying to get all this down on tape over the course of a dress rehearsal, a live performance and two more days of additional recording sessions, then sorting through all the takes to find the best parts, mixing them together here, editing them in London and ...
It was pretty involved.
The writing of "Songs'' took more than two decades, starting off and on in the 1950s but pursued more seriously after 1974, the year Bolcom was hired at the U-M.
"I was still doing other work ... but in between I was finally able to get a good bead on it and being (at the U-M) allowed me at least enough hunks of time I could actually concentrate. One of the reasons I took the job (at the U-M) is I thought 'Now I can really get the piece done,''' Bolcom said this week.
"Songs of Innocence and of Experience'' received its world premiere in 1984 to critical acclaim, but is seldom performed - just 16 times by Bolcom's count - because of its sheer size.
A project takes shape
The recorded performance of "Songs'' was conceived to mark the renovation of Hill Auditorium in early 2004.
UMS President Kenneth C. Fischer credited Karen Wolff, School of Music dean at the time. "She determined this was the joint collaboration that needed to be done to celebrate the reopening of Hill,'' he recalled. "It would show the potential of the new hall with our own composers and musicians.''
Bolcom cited U-M composer Michael Daugherty as a key figure who helped get the recording project off the ground: "He approached everybody ... and said 'this is something we should do.' Some people resisted, because of the size of the work, but often the people who were the most resistant most were the most cooperative in the end.''
When all was said and done, the UMS spent in more than $126,000, not including staff time, on producing the event, according to Michael Kondziolka, UMS programming director. Some of those costs were recouped from tickets sales and by donations from Maury and Linda Binkow of Ann Arbor and Maxine and Stuart Frankel of Bloomfield Hills, "who stepped up and made financial contributions to the project to make sure it happened,'' Kondziolka said.
Naxos, the respected classical music label, paid U-M "a relatively small amount compared to the overall cost'' to record the performance, added Bradley Bloom, associate dean for administrative affairs at the School of Music, who co-produced the show with Kondziolka. It is against U-M policy to use its venues or resources without some reimbursement, he explained, adding that the Naxos funds went to "help defray the costs of engineering and equipment and time.''
By contract, the U-M gets no royalties from Naxos' sales of the CD, he added.
Let's get this on tape
The actual performance of "Songs'' was April 8, 2004, in Hill Auditorium, almost 20 years to the day that the work received its first U.S. airing, also in Hill. Before that, however, came rehearsals, by Kondziolka's estimate at least 150 hours' worth, individually and with conductor Leonard Slatkin.
Then there was the challenge of expanding Hill's stage to fit the number of performers. "Just the sheer administrative logistics were pretty over the top,'' Kondziolka said. "And clearly getting everyone on and off stage was very complicated.''
Recording engineers from Ann Arbor's Brookwood Studio were engaged to record not only the live show, but the dress rehearsal the day before and two later "pickup'' sessions.
David Lau, who owns Brookwood, said the effort took "an incredible amount of planning and an incredible amount of stamina.'' He estimated that six months were spent working out the technical aspects, including the optimal placement of 32 microphones and getting familiar with the work itself.
"We mixed everything that was recorded ... and sent all those mixes off to London when Tim Handley did the editing, compiling all those various takes into the best performance,'' Lau said.
What did Bolcom think of the end result?
"They spent a lot of hours in rehearsal and it showed. They knew the piece, not just played the notes. There was the kind of cohesion and flow you don't get when people are sitting there just flying by the seat of their pants, hoping to hit most of the notes on the page.''
Experience of a lifetime
What was it like to take part in such an effort?
Jeremy Kittel - champion Celtic fiddler from Saline, School of Music graduate and current student at the Manhattan School of Music - said he was "amazed to hear all those disparate musical styles come together.''
"I was very happy with my contribution and everybody else's - it was amazing it worked so well,'' he added. Kittel said he was asked to be a part of the work "because the piece required a fiddler and I had a reputation around the School of Music as being adept in a range of styles, including fiddle music. ... I had a great time working on the piece.''
Bloom agreed. " I was thrilled to be a part of it,'' he said. "I can look back on my career and say, 'I helped make this happen.'''
"It was almost an out-of-body experience to be on that stage. What feet? I was on air,'' said Siri Gottlieb, who sang with the UMS Choral Union. "Having the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to collaborate on such a phenomenal work with world-class artists was a major life event.''
Still, Bolcom said he sympathized with some of the participants, in particular the singers, who were on their feet for long stretches of time. "I felt awful about them. ... I wanted to get a bunch of Dr. Scholl's (foot pads) to pass out to them so they could put them in their shoes,'' he said.
Was it worth it?
The success of such an endeavor cannot be measured in dollars and cents, Kondziolka said. "To actually have this kind of national recognition is an incredibly important affirmation of the kind of work we are doing here.
"I think we all in a general sense know the value of these experiences because we've had them. But sometimes it's really important to get this kind of structured recognition of success by our peers.''
One effect of the Grammy wins could be an enhancement of the U-M School of Music's profile. While the school enjoys a strong reputation, the Grammys can only strengthen its stature.
"It gives us international recognition,'' said Bloom.
"It really shows what the School of Music can do,'' agreed Kenneth Kiesler, director of the University Symphony Orchestra.
Selling like hotcakes
One thing's for sure - the Grammy honors increased sales of the CD.
"It's our best-selling single composer record of 2004 and 2005 - it really just went gangbusters, a real success for us,'' said Mark Berry, national publicist for Naxos. "The day after the Grammys were announced it went from being not on the charts at all to being the sixth best-selling (classical) recording on Amazon.com.''
He said that according to Soundscan, which tracks music sales, "we sold almost 10 times the Bolcom as we had the week before.'' He would not release sales totals.
Not that anyone who was involved in the project cares that much about selling CDs. It was the experience that counted.
"It's a testament to the quality of the forces involved,'' Fischer summed up. "To have it succeed this way is really wonderful.''
“Inventive ‘Songs’ Brings Poetry to Life” by Elaine Guregian
Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal, Sunday, February 19th, 2006
A hint of the surprises and revelations to come in William Bolcom's massive Songs of Innocence and Experience happens near the beginning. Who would expect the sounds of a country fiddler and the nonclassically trained voice of a harmonica player to turn up in a composition for orchestra and chorus?
Another of the many stylistic jolts comes after an enormous pileup of nearly 450 choristers and instrumentalists that you would expect to end the piece. I won't give away that surprise, but it'll put a smile on your face. (If you really want to know, check the audio clip with this story on Ohio.com.)
The conventional wisdom given to authors -- write what you know -- has paid off richly for Bolcom in this work. Earlier this month, Songs of Innocence and Experience won Grammy Awards for Best Classical Album, Best Choral Performance and Best Classical Contemporary Composition.
Bolcom, born in 1938, read William Blake's poetry while he was growing up in Seattle. He began to write a cycle of poem settings that he worked on, off and on, during a successful, wide-ranging career that has included a Pulitzer Prize, four commissions from Lyric Opera of Chicago, and performing as a cabaret pianist with his wife, singer Joan Morris. In 1982, Bolcom finally finished the piece.
Bolcom is no snob. His style embraces American popular song of earlier eras, folk music and Broadway musicals. Even a Civil War fifer turns up. There's more than a touch of Mahler in the jolly, rustic woodwinds in the orchestra for ``The Voice of the Ancient Bard,'' but not in a derivative sense. These songs and orchestral interludes add up to a startlingly original, affecting whole.
Bolcom's command of the orchestra and the chorus pulls together this exuberant writing, which shifts easily between wild-eyed excess and meltingly simple vocal lines. Despite the vast resources available to him, Bolcom has written many of the movements as intimate songs for voice and orchestra.
And you never know what will be next.
``The Tyger'' (Tyger! Tyger! burning bright/In the forest of the night), one of the most famous of Blake's poems, thumps here with percussion punctuating choristers' shouts. Another poem that may be familiar is ``A Poison Tree'' (I was angry with my friend: I told my wrath, my wrath did end. I was angry with my foe: I told it not, my wrath did grow.'' Nathan Lee Graham sings this spare, pent-up setting with a vitriol that's genuinely scary.
The exciting cast of soloists on this live recording includes the well-established (Christine Brewer, Joan Morris, Marietta Simpson) as well as newer discoveries such as Measha Brueggergosman, who last month made a thrilling debut with the Akron Symphony and next year will sing with the Cleveland Orchestra.
It's possible to dip in and out to sample this episodic piece, splendidly performed at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, Mich., by the University of Michigan School of Music Orchestra, University Musical Society Choral Union and many other choristers and instrumentalists.
Despite the length (2 hours 17 minutes), the work moves forward with a furious energy and a sure sense of melody. The writing has the sureness of a composer who has lived in all these styles. I'd call it a summing-up, but I'm guessing this inventive composer still has more to say.