When the Grant Park Music Festival decided to celebrate its 80th anniversary this summer by commissioning a composer to write a work for the occasion, an obvious candidate quickly emerged: William Bolcom.
The festival has a significant history of performing his works, including the first professional presentation in 1986 of one of the composer’s most ambitious and lauded works, “Songs of Innocence and of Experience.” The three-hour song cycle incorporates settings of 46 poems by William Blake and calls for more than 200 vocalists and musicians.
Through Fritz Kaenzig, principal tuba player in the Grant Park Orchestra and a faculty member at the University of Michigan, where Bolcom taught from 1973 to 2008, the festival asked if he would be interested in the commission.
His enthusiastic acceptance led to his being named the festival’s 2014 composer-in-residence, an honorary post that will bring him to Chicago for the culminating of the week of the festival, which will feature his music on the Grant Park Orchestra’s two final programs.
Four singers from the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Opera will perform orchestrated versions of 12 of Bolcom’s “Cabaret Songs” on Wednesday evening. And Bolcom’s “Millennium: A Concerto-Fantasia for Orchestra,” will receive its world premiere Friday and Saturday evening.
Bolcom might not enjoy the name recognition of some his peers, and his music might not be as experimental or avant-garde as certain other colleagues, but few American composers can match the breadth of his accomplishments.
Consider that he has written scores of works, including nine symphonies and three major operas (all commissioned and premiered by the Lyric Opera of Chicago), and his many honors include winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 and being named Musical America’s Composer of the Year in 2007.
Although he was marked by the serialism or atonality that dominated the classical scene when he began his compositional career in the late 1950s, Bolcom never subscribed to its doctrinaire tenets, working instead with a kind of extended chromaticism at first.
“Of course I was influenced by all that,” he said from his home in Ann Arbor, Mich. “I’ve been around a long time. I still feel there are things I learned from it. I also feel I’ve been able to make a bridge between very simple tonality to very complex reaches further out in the solar system musically, but I feel freely able to move from one to another easily.”
Bolcom is especially known for his ability to comfortably mix elements of classical and popular music, drawing from such styles as jazz and ragtime. His cross-genre “Songs of Innocence,” for example, incorporates country, rock and folk.
“Millennium,” his commission for the Grant Park festival, emerged out of the composer’s reflections on time, dating back to a conference he attended in 2000 at Cambridge University. He is fascinated by how century and millennial changes are arbitrary points in time, yet they can exert considerable power on the course of humanity.
Unlike circularity of the A-B-A sonata form that many classical works follow, little returns or repeats in Bolcom’s new work.
“I was after something,” he said, “that was a progressive form that would end up in a different place than where you started. It’s a challenge to get it right, because it can seem absolutely formless if it isn’t done right. I hope it works.”
Looking at the state of composition today, Bolcom is impressed with much of the talent he sees, but he worries that too often promotion and personality take precedence over the quality of the music. He recently heard about a composer giving his students guidance on how to promote their “brand.”
“I find that an anathema,” he said. “Maybe I’m just old. It seems to me that making it good is more important than selling your personality.”
For more than a half-century, that formula has certainly worked for Bolcom.