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William Bolcom
Songs of Innocence and of Experience

Christine Brewer Measha Brueggergosman IIana Davidson Linda Hohenfeld Carmen Pelton, Sopranos
Joan Morris, Mezzo-soprano.
Marietta Simpson, Contralto
Thomas Young, Tenor.
Nmon Ford, Baritone.
Nathan Lee Graham, Speaker/Vocals
Tommy Morgan, Harmonica.
Peter "Madcat" Ruth, Harmonica and Vocals.
Jeremy Kittel, Fiddle

The University MUsical Society The University of Michigan School of Music Ann Arbor, Michigan;
University Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Kiesler; Contemporary Directions Ensemble/Jonathan Shames; University Musical Society Choral Union and University of Michigan Chamber Choir/Jerry Blackstone, Conductor
University of Michigan University Choir/Christopher Kiver, Condnctor
University of Michigan Orpheus Singers/Carole Ott/William Hammer/Jason Harris; Michigan State University Children's Choir/Mary Alice Stollak
Conductor Leonard Slatkin

Naxos American Classics 8.559216-18
[Hill Auditorium, Ann Arbor, Michigan April 2004; 3 CDs, 52'+43'+43']

A short welcome for a major American choral work of impressive mastery in setting the whole diversity of an important body of English poetry, reminding those of us who don't know them well that William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794), "shewing the two contrary states of the human soul", is a key production of the late 18th century, ultimately pessimistic and angry in its depiction of the withering of human potential and the hypocrisies of life in his time and prefiguring the dark side of the times to come, not least our own.

William Bolcom’s setting (1956-82) is a gigantic score for soloists, choruses, and orchestra, composed intermittently alongside commissioned works and other musical activities. Premiered in Stuttgart 1984, it was heared in UK at London’s Royal Festival Hall in 1996 (BBC Symphony Orchestra/ Leonard Slatkin). That event passed me by, and I am delighted to have caught up with this masterpiece in the inspiritng new recording released by Naxos.

There are nearly 50 tracks, grouped in nine sections based upon Blake's last ordering of his conception. The musical settings are deliberately eclectic and Bolcom has long been fascinated by the synthesis of disparate elements, directed thereto by Blake's 'priniciple of contraries'. All of which makes it ideal for revival and reassessment at this time of pervasive musical coexistence of crossovers between so many musics.

Bolcom glides effortlessly between different styles and manners of composing and was designed as a work to embrace the disparate departments of a large university school of music. The word setting is effortlessly natural, but following the text is essential to grasp the frequent ironies. Bolcom hopes that 'the knowledge these poems gives us is often frightening, but it makes us free and in the end gives us joy'; certainly there is patent exhilaration in this achievement by the combined forces of Michigan University and the many soloists enlisted for their performance in Anne Arbour Hall.

People get hooked by Blake, (e.g. the composer Dmitri Smirnov, one of whose numerous Blake settings will greet you if you click onto BBC3 Hear & Now on the BBC's Listen Again facility this week). Bolcom's long labour of love will appeal to everyone who enjoys the large scale works and song cycles of Britten, who had made many of these poems familiar to music lovers, but they are treated very differently here. You will probably notice other influences, gracefully alluded to, but there is an overall originality in Bolcom's treatment which finds places for harmonica and saxophones, choral speech and vocalise, swings from the simplicity of folk, rock and reggae to intense modernistic dissonance and massive counterpoint, always purposive and relevant to the words.

Naxos's production in this triple-CD box is lavishly comprehensive with notes by the composer written 1984 & 2004; every participant named, and all texts provided in clear black-on-white print. Recommended unreservedly to all listeners open to something unique, and at Naxos's budget price (even cheaper from Amazon) - who could resist?

I hope this Naxos release will prompt consideration of UK revivals by some of our schools of music and universities; it would be a great project for the combined forces of Trinity College of Music and Goldsmith's College to bring to my local Blackheath Halls in S E London?

© Peter Grahame Woolf