The duo of composer and pianist William Bolcom and his wife mezzo-soprano Joan Morris opened their annual appearances on the Mohawk Trail Concerts’ 43rd season yesterday with a tip of the hat to France in honor of Bastille Day. Bolcom studied with Darius Milhaud both in the US, where he taught at Mills College in Oakland, CA, 1940, and in Paris at the Conservatoire where he taught in alternate years from 1947 to 1971. Bolcom became a close friend of the composer and his wife Madeleine, and remains close to their son Daniel, a painter and sculptor. The duo performed some Milhaud, beginning with the first of his Trois Chansons de négresse, Op. 148b, to texts by poet Jules Supervielle: “Mon histoire” [“My Story”], sung in the original French. They followed this with a set of French songs sung in translation, most of those done by Bolcom, by Joseph Kosma (1905-1969) to texts by Jacques Prévert, poems that are often whimsical and humorous, featuring linguistic play that is not easy to render in another language. These included: “Chanson pour les enfants l’hiver,” “À la belle étoile,” and “Dans ma maison,” and concluded with Johnny Mercer’s translation of “Les Feuilles mortes” (“Autmn Leaves”). Bolcom followed this with some solo piano pieces beginning with two of Milhaud’s Saudades do Brazil, Op. 67: “Corcovado” and “Larenjeiras”; the twelve dances bear the names of districts of Rio de Janeiro and were inspired by music the composer heard when he was there during WW I as a cultural attaché while the poet and playwright Paul Claudel was the ambassador of France to Brazil, and the first of his Trois Rags-Caprices, Op. 78.
To bring us up to the intermission, two young guest pianists, beginners from Brattleboro, Julia Belyung, 10, and Hanna Ruhl, 12, were welcomed to the stage to perform pieces from Bolcom’s Monsterpieces (and Others) for Older Children, written in 1980 for Morris when she began learning to play the piano, so that she would have some music other than exercises to play. Bolcom follows in the footsteps of his mentor in being diverse, playful, and prolific in his compositions; Milhaud’s opus numbers rise to near 450, and Bolcom’s works must be approaching that quantity although he does not assign numbers to them.
After the break for refreshments, we had a surprise not mentioned in the program with the performance by UMass Amherst professor of piano emerita Estela Olevsky of Claude Debussy’s Soirée dans Grenade (Estampes/2). The ultra-bright Steinway on the stage did not serve this music at all well, making it far too percussive; Debussy is known to have declared that he wanted to make the instrument seem as if it did not have hammers.
The duo followed this with an Édith Piaf song, “Mon homme,” sung in translation, and Cole Porter’s “Gay Paree.” Two songs by Walter Donaldson: “Sam the Old Accordion Man” and “At Sundown” were up next, followed by George and “his lovely wife” Ira, as a critic once wrote, Gershwin’s “Nice Work If You Can Get It.” A Flanders and Swann number that elicited much laughter followed, preceding one of Bolcom’s own Cabaret Songs: “Radical Sally,” to a text by Arnold Weinstein; the Gershwins’ “By Strauss” closed the set. Bill and Joan granted the audience two encores: Irving Berlin’s “Tomorrow Is a Lovely Day” and Bolcom’s own “Lime Jell-O Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise, that he composed for Morris as a wedding present in 1975, with which they almost always conclude their recitals.
The program was a typical Bolcom and Morris offering, cabaret-style, informal, with works announced from the stage as the evening progressed, and somewhat haphazard, with an eclectic mix of songs written for clubs and shows and a couple of piano solos interspersed among them, a mix of the familiar and the obscure, all with good doses of humor, nostalgia, and sentimentality, and all intermingled with Bill’s informative and interesting commentary about the pieces and presented with Joan’s wonderfully expressive vocal and gestural interpretations. The evening was a delight of the sort that Bolcom and Morris have delivered unfailingly for over 40 years. The information in the printed program book was, however, a bit too minimal (It is difficult to catch titles in other languages when they are announced but not printed.), incomplete and misleading, and consequently somewhat disconcerting and disorienting. It also contained erroneous information: the composer identified as the author of the songs to the Prévert poems was not the correct one, and Bolcom’s date of birth was wrong (although it is correct in the bio found elsewhere in the book). The titles of his four tiny pieces for piano were printed as if they were two works, since the “and” connecting the pairs was in Italics along with their actual titles (The girls took bows after each of their two pieces.). There were some cute drawings by Bolcom of “monsters” that accompany these pieces printed at the bottom of the page as a nice touch.