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'Innocence' realized in rare symphonic grandeur

February 07, 2003|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

William Bolcom's "Songs of Innocence and of Experience" was born of innocence. It was the naive dream of a 17-year-old with eclectic tastes to set to music all the poems in William Blake's cycle. Bolcom imagined enormous forces that would include a massive chorus and orchestra, along with vocal soloists from the worlds of classical music, opera and pop. And what this teenager in Seattle first heard in his mind, around 1955, was a shockingly loud and dissonant orchestral explosion, out of which would burst Blake's encompassing look at humanity, in all its sincere tenderness and savage cynicism.

It took Bolcom more than a quarter century to realize his vision, but he did, creating one of the most extravagant works in the symphonic literature. Although celebrated for its stylistic variety, Bolcom's magnum opus is such a vast and expensive undertaking to perform that it is seldom experienced and still unrecorded. When the Pacific Symphony boldly intoned that birthing chord Wednesday evening, it was only the sixth professional orchestra to do so during the last two decades. Three eventful hours later, with the mind dazzled by a sequence of songs recklessly veering from Wagnerian ardor to music hall sentimentality to rock 'n' roll swagger, one left the Orange County Performing Arts Center to the sound of ebullient, swinging reggae.

On the most basic level, "Songs of Innocence and of Experience" is a grand entertainment, even if many in the audience drifted out during the long evening. But through a useful program companion and earlier concerts in its American Composers Festival, the Pacific Symphony was also eager to demonstrate that Bolcom's score has its roots deep in the American musical experience and couldn't be more timely or serious.

Talking to the audience before the performance, Bolcom explained that Blake's poems show us good and evil as two sides of a coin, and the blurring and interaction of these contrary qualities is what makes us human. Expect only one or the other, and you ask for trouble.

Bolcom's massive score is, like the human condition, unwieldy, a celebration of differences. Moving from innocence to experience, there are dark moments in both sections of the work, when it feels as though the world is ruled by chaos. And then, out of nowhere, an unforgettable melody will arise. "The Divine Image," in "Innocence," is an anthem to mercy, pity, peace and love that sweeps a listener away. At the other extreme, frightening choral chant and pounding drums evoke the famous words, "Tyger! Tyger! burning bright."

Bolcom thinks big with his orchestra -- which includes saxophones, a rock combo, a country fiddler, a harmonica. He employs three choruses. Here the John Alexander Singers were the madrigalists, supplementing the Pacific Chorale and its Children's Chorus. Carl St.Clair conducted with all-purpose urgency but also an impressive command of the score's large dramatic sweep.

A lot is asked of the eight vocal soloists. Nathan Lee Graham was listed as rock singer and speaker, and he proved electrifying. Squarely facing the 18th century racist language in "The Little Black Boy," Bolcom sets it as soulful rhythm and blues.

Graham, who is an African American film and television actor as well as a Broadway and opera singer, sang it with riveting expression, full of anger, threat, fear, restraint.

Mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, Bolcom's wife, is no longer the robust singer she was in her youth, but she still could bring tears to the eyes in "The Divine Image," which Bolcom dedicated to the victims of the Columbia tragedy. She still could get quite a few laughs with her country and western rendition of the "Nurse's Song."

All the soloists were strong, especially the stunning tenor, Theodore Green. The others were Ilana Davidson, Elizabeth Keusch, Nina Warren, Marietta Simpson and Nmon Ford.

The last song, "A Divine Image," is a striking contrast to the earlier, trusting "The Divine Image." Set as audience-rousing reggae, in which all the soloists and choruses join in, it contains bitter words: "Cruelty has a Human Heart,/And Jealousy a Human Face/Terror the Human Form Divine/And Secrecy the Human Dress." Blake was indicting public figures, but Bolcom's music enthralls unambiguously, coursing to our toes. The composer seems to be saying, Carry on, the world has always been thus, and your innocence will not make it better.

This is music of great import, and in reviving it, it was also perhaps the Pacific Symphony's finest moment.

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