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Fanfare, November 2005

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Robert Carl
Fanfare, November 2005

Songs of Innocence and Experience have finally made it to disc…This is one of the few certifiable masterpieces of American concert music from the second half of the last century…

To read the complete review, please visit Fanfare online.

Peter Dickinson
Gramophone, July 2005

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Allan Kozinn
The New York Times, January 2005

ECLECTICISM has long been suspect in certain corners of the classical music world. Some complain that it shows an unwillingness on the part of a composer to settle on a consistent idiom; others, that it's a form of selling out, of pandering to audiences by navigating only in their comfort zones.

But if anyone comes by eclecticism honestly, it is William Bolcom. As a pianist, he is a superb player of ragtime and stride, and his collaboration in early 20th-century popular songs with his wife, the mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, has yielded many an entertaining disc. He has composed in those styles as well, but much of his music is couched in a thornier, more abstract language.

In "Songs of Innocence and of Experience," now available in a three-CD set from Naxos, Mr. Bolcom brings all his musical loves together - appropriately, perhaps, for a setting of an all-embracing cycle of poems by William Blake. Mainstream contemporary orchestral and choral writing wafts through the set, as do country and western ballads, bluegrass, blues, jazz, theatrical pop and reggae, all in the appropriate instrumentation. This design demands a mammoth ensemble: a full orchestra, augmented by guitars (electric and acoustic), bass, a trap set, a country fiddle, a harmonica and a huge chorus (including a children's choir) - about 450 musicians in all.

Mr. Bolcom moves seamlessly through his compendium of styles. A graceful art-song setting of "The Lamb" flows without pause into "The Shepherd," cast as a country tune, complete with lively, gritty fiddling. A burst of lightly cacophonous scoring interrupts briefly, but the fiddle emerges again to lead the listener toward a richly harmonized setting of "Infant Joy." That, in turn, gives way to a bluesy, jazzy setting of "The Little Black Boy."

And so on, for two and a quarter hours. Some styles are visited more than once, though never in quite the same way. Orchestral interludes are plentiful, and they help define the work's arching shape. But beyond the score's cohesiveness, the real attraction is the sense of surprise every time Mr. Bolcom shifts gears, along with the equally strong sense that his choices get to the heart of each poem.

Even the settings that are spoken rather than sung can be startling. "The Tyger," for one, is recited rhythmically (and vehemently) by the choir, accompanied by an increasingly complex percussion score. "A Poison Tree" receives a dramatic solo recitation with a light piano accompaniment.

Mr. Bolcom is a prolific composer, and in recent years he has lavished considerable effort on the opera stage. But this is his magnum opus. He composed a few of these settings as early as 1956 but wrote most of the work in the 1970's and early 80's, completing it in 1982.

Live performances have been few because of the work's complex orchestration and the wide range of performers it demands. (The bluegrass, folk, blues and theater pieces require singers who sound comfortable in those styles.) But it has made an indelible impression on those who have heard it, and on performers as well. Leonard Slatkin began campaigning to record it when he performed it with the St. Louis Symphony in 1992, but RCA Red Seal, his label at the time, would not countenance the expense.

Mr. Slatkin has at long last found a home for the project at Naxos, a label that seems intent on recording every note of the classical repertory while the rest of the industry is in a state of perpetual retrenchment. No doubt, recording the work with forces supplied by the University of Michigan, where Mr. Bolcom teaches, kept the costs down, but it took no toll on the performance.

The orchestral playing is first rate. The singing ranges from a polished art-music style (Christine Brewer, Marietta Simpson and others) to the unvarnished vocal forms that some of the pop idioms demand (Ms. Morris and others). And the recorded sound is superb, an achievement worth noting in a work that ranges so freely through the spectrum of timbres.

Bill F. Faucett
January 2005

Using poems by the English mystic William Blake (1757-1827), Bolcom's 47-song cycle - one of the grandest achievements in the genre by an American composer - encompasses a dizzying array of musical styles. While many are expected, many more are surprising, and unexpectedly effective.

The cycle is akin to a musical journey through life, starting with pastoral songs reflective of childhood and adolescence, then progressing to denser musical explorations of adult themes, including parenting, old age and, of course, death.

Bolcom's writing is inventive and unfettered by convention. Among the songs of innocence, The Shepherd will at first remind one of a simple country melody in the Hank Williams Sr. mold. But it is cleverly framed by dissonant orchestral strokes influenced by Charles Ives, whose monumental 114 Songs has clearly left an impression on Bolcom.

My Pretty Rose Tree and Ah! Sunflower are a hauntingly beautiful pair of choral treats, simple in their structure, but demonstrating Bolcom's utter mastery of harmony and text setting.

Some of Bolcom's most compelling instrumental writing is heard in The Clod and the Pebble, a brief, rhythmic song that uses a variety of special techniques and includes inspired writing for the winds. The Tyger, one of the most memorable pieces in the cycle, features the motoric chanting of men's voices to the accompaniment of relentless tom-toms.

Some of the CD's Broadway-style settings are cliche-ridden, and Vocalise, a segment of irritating choral shouting, doesn't add to the whole.

One must also grapple with the fact that, ultimately, Blake's poetry is dark, defeatist and even cynical. The final selection, A Divine Song, is not a pretty picture of human nature and, while Bolcom attempts to uplift the poetry by cloaking it in the garb of a reggae beat, he cannot hide Blake's apparent contempt for the human condition.

Naxos' wonderfully produced three-disc set features Leonard Slatkin leading admirable performances by numerous soloists, choruses and the orchestra of the University of Michigan.

The New York Times, December 2004

William Bolcom worked on his settings of the 46 poems of William Blake's "Songs of Innocence and of Experience" for 25 years. Leonard Slatkin conducts a gripping live performance of this ambitious masterpiece, over two hours of music for orchestra, multiple choruses and soloists that audaciously synthesizes wildly diverse musical styles. (Anthony Tommasini)

John von Rhein
Chicago Tribune, December 2004

If American composition in the late 20th Century has a single defining work, it is this sprawling masterpiece.Bolcom's 2 1/2-hour song cycle, set to the mystical poems of William Blake, is a multicultural stew -- atonal modernism, Mahlerian romanticism, ragtime, rock, folk, country, Broadway and reggae are tossed in the pot and brought to a merry boil. Everything hangs together miraculously well because Bolcom is a master of his many musical domains

Richard Dyer
The Boston Globe, December 2004

Twenty-five years in the making and worth every minute of the wait. Bolcom turns William Blake's poems into a comprehensive survey of American musical style and, in the process, creates a big, bold, unabashed masterpiece.

John von Rhein
Chicago Tribune, December 2004

Famed director Robert Altman's 1978 film comedy, "A Wedding," struck many as odd material for an opera when Lyric Opera announced the project several years ago. Critics had pooh-poohed the movie as a scattershot satire on upper middle-class foibles. . . .

A listener's game plan: There is no recording of "A Wedding," as yet. But you can get a good idea of Bolcom's wonderfully eclectic style by listening to his magnum opus, "Songs of Innocence and of Experience," a two-hour song cycle based on the poems of William Blake, which Naxos has recently issued in a superb performance conducted by Leonard Slatkin.

by Mary Kunz
The Buffalo News, December 2004

For anyone interested in the most important classical release of the year: William Bolcom, "Songs of Innocence and of Experience" (Naxos, three discs, $15). The long overdue first release of Bolcom's magnum opus, a 2 1/2 hour cantata setting of William Blake's poems, scored for a massive orchestra, chorus, soloists and rock band and rendered in a post-modern melange of classical styles, rock, soul, folk, madrigals, country, theater music and reggae.

Mark Swed
Los Angeles Times, December 2004

After practically 20 years of trying, Leonard Slatkin has finally managed to get William Bolcom's massive symphonic cycle, a complete setting of William Blake's "Songs of Innocence and of Experience," recorded, and that is cause for celebration. Bolcom, a master of eclecticism, throws in even the kitchen sink in his nearly three-hour compendium of musical styles -- from country and western to atonal contrapuntal -- written for gargantuan forces. But the real accomplishment is the way the piece holds together, has a voice and really does encompass innocence and experience. Although the many vocal soloists are variable, the performance overall has just the right amount of energy and enthusiasm.

Wynne Delacoma
Chicago Sun-Times, December 2004

For a living composer, William Bolcom is fairly well represented on CD. But any composer, living or dead, would envy two of his more recent CD releases. At a time when record companies are drastically cutting back on large-scale operatic offerings, Bolcom has two currently available. In 2001, New World Records released a recording of his "A View From the Bridge,'' which had its world premiere at Lyric Opera in 1999. This fall Naxos issued a three-disc set of his exuberant, sprawling song cycle, "Songs of Innocence and Experience,'' set to poetry of William Blake.

As a recording project, "Songs of Innocence and Experience,'' conducted by Leonard Slatkin with guest soloists and musical forces from the University of Michigan School of Music, where Bolcom teaches, is the more remarkable achievement. Written over a span of 20 years for multiple choirs, soloists and large orchestra, the piece, which had its world premiere in 1984, calls for more than 400 performers.

Its basic recording costs of close to $100,000 alone would have been enough to scare off most record companies. But the performers and Bolcom took reduced or waived fees, and so the Naxos crew recorded a live performance of the work at the university's Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor in April.

"Songs of Innocence'' is a marvel, as colorful, thought-provoking and wide-ranging in style as Blake's cycle of 46 poems. It opens with a noisy orchestral outburst that melts into a mystical little woodwind tune and the lilting first song. "The Little Black Boy'' has the bluesy swing of country rock, while "The Divine Chimney Sweeper'' drifts by with the mock-bathos of a syrupy 19th century salon tune. The vast range of Bolcom's musical canvas, with its easy mix of laid-back, popular styles and precisely drawn, evocative orchestral writing, is on full display. . . .

Bravo to Naxos for making this important 20th century piece available to a wide audience.

Jed Distler, October 2004

William Bolcom’s ambitious setting of William Blake’s complete Songs of Innocence and Experience for soloists, multiple choral forces, and orchestra occupied the composer on and off, beginning as far back as the late 1950s, with most of the work completed between 1973-74 and 1979-82. The composer’s renowned eclectic bent makes itself felt in the work’s nearly two-and-one-half-hour length. Musical eras, styles, and performance practices leapfrog back and forth in unpredictable progressions, keeping the listener in a constant state of suspense as to what might occur next. For example, in the opening Songs of Innocence, Bolcom’s neo-Schoenbergian setting of “The Lamb”, replete with difficult, leaping intervals for the soprano soloist (brilliantly dispatched by Measha Brueggergosman), erupts into a thick, dissonant orchestral tutti that gives way to a lazy country-fiddle lament treatment of “The Shepherd”. No sooner do Peter “Madcat” Ruth’s hoary pipes twang out the tune than a bomb of orchestral cacophony crushes the Grand Ole Opry to smithereens. A brilliant children’s chorus (“Infant Joy”) emerges from the ruins, insidiously slipping into a funk-watered-down-for-Broadway-consumption groove for “The Little Black Boy”. Along the way we also encounter Handel oratorio, peppy English madrigals, Stephen Foster naiveté, Ivesian mysticism, Berio’s fractured folk songs, industrial-strength Varèse percussion ensembles, and effective speech-sung passages.

Bolcom’s thoroughly internalized command of such disparate idioms is matched and arguably surpassed by his gift for transitions, plus his ability for keeping orchestral and choral textures fresh, varied, and always interesting to the ear (his use of the harmonica within delicate string passages, for example). And even when some of his juxtapositions seem a bit far-fetched, such as the finale’s bloated Reggae pretensions (“I Shot the Sheriff” versus “Also Sprach Zarathustra”), at least Bolcom knows when long enough is long enough. In general, the longer Songs of Experience section contains darker, more serious selections, although the constant stylistic shifts make it difficult to immediately perceive the dramatic arc implied by Blake’s ordering of texts.

You couldn’t imagine a more varied group of vocal soloists. They run the gamut from Joan Morris’ unique cabaret approach and Thomas Young’s stentorian yet supple tenor, to Nathan Lee Graham’s ringing, focused baritone and Ilona Davidson’s attractive, silvery timbre in “The Angel”. The numerous choirs and the University of Michigan Orchestra obviously put in serious rehearsal hours (going into overtime, I’ll bet), and the sense of occasion hovering over these live performances certainly colors their first-rate contributions. And when you can’t help focusing your attention on the music rather than the musicians, as I did, it’s clear that Leonard Slatkin’s leadership does ample justice to Bolcom’s artistic vision and inner ear. Naxos provides full texts plus booklet notes by the composer.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group