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U-M hosts Bolcom's massive 'Songs of Innocence' in April

"Songs of Innocence and Experience," the epic work of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and U-M Professor of Composition William Bolcom, will be presented April 8 in Hill Auditorium. The little-performed but much acclaimed song cycle is based on the poetry of William Blake.
Bolcom (Photo by Marcia Ledford, U-M Photo Services)

The performance, in collaboration with the School of Music and University Musical Society (UMS), will be conducted by Leonard Slatkin, who is in his seventh season as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra and third season as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London.

About 450 musicians will perform on an extended stage, representing the University Symphony Orchestra, the Contemporary Directions Ensemble, U-M Choirs (University Choir, Chamber Choir and Orpheus Singers), the UMS Choral Union, the Michigan State University Children's Choir, and more than a dozen soloists from the classical, pop, folk, country and operatic realms.

The project is "enormously exciting," says School of Music Dean Karen Wolff.

"Our students and faculty can experience the collaborative effort of these two world-class musicians on a first-hand basis," Wolff says. "It is an opportunity to pay tribute to our own faculty member, William Bolcom, one of the greatest compositional forces in the world today."

The work also will be recorded in Ann Arbor for release on the Naxos label, the first commercial recording ever made of the gargantuan work.
Leonard Slatkin rehearses with Julia Gish, a member of the University Symphony Orchestra. Slatkin will conduct composer William Bolcom's "Songs of Innocence and Experience" April 8. (Photo by Marcia Ledford, U-M Photo Services)

The performance will occur nearly 20 years after Hill Auditorium served as the venue for its U.S. premiere, and it concludes the reopening celebration of the historic venue after an 18-month, $40 million restoration.

Bolcom's love affair with the works of poet Blake led him to decide when he was 17 years old that he eventually would set these 46 poems to music. He began as a teenager but put the project on hold for many years to pursue his education and further develop the compositional vocabulary he felt he needed to do the project justice.

Most of the work was completed between 1973 and 1982 after Bolcom joined the faculty of U-M, where he was able to devote the attention needed.

The work contains references to jazz, reggae, gospel, ragtime, country and other popular idioms, as well as conventional classical styles. In an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1992, Bolcom said: "We have innocent notions about ourselves, and sometimes we go around in a stupor because we actually believe them. Experience, on the other hand, teaches us something else. All around us are examples of innocence pitted against experience. Our politicians suggest that we be puritanical, yet our entire advertising industry is based on the idea of sexual titillation. On one page of a woman's magazine there is an article about dieting and on the next page is a recipe for the richest dessert you can imagine."

"Songs of Innocence and Experience" received its world premiere in Stuttgart, Germany, in January 1984.

The work's mammoth scale has resulted in relatively few performances over the past 20 years, notwithstanding extraordinary reviews. The New York Times exclaimed, "What an astonishing, exhilarating, exhausting, and exasperating composition it is!" and called it "a masterpiece of our time and place—gigantically ambitious."

Slatkin has conducted several of the performances.

Composer/pianist Bolcom was born in Seattle in 1938. His many awards include the Pulitzer Prize, two Guggenheim Fellowships, several Rockefeller Awards and NEA grants, the 1977 Henry Russel Award and 20 years later the prestigious Henry Russel Lectureship; investiture in the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1992; and numerous other honorary degrees, grants and awards.

He has been commissioned to compose new works by Lyric Opera of Chicago, as well as by orchestras in Philadelphia, St. Louis, Seattle, St. Paul, Vienna, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., New York and many others. He composed a monodrama for soprano and string orchestra, "Medusa," which was performed in Ann Arbor last season. His cabaret songs also were on display at the Hill Auditorium Gala Re-Opening with the composer at the piano.

This UMS/School of Music collaboration is funded in part by U-M and supported by the Maxine and Stuart Frankel Foundation and Linda and Maurice Binkow. The work is presented with additional support from media sponsors WGTE 91.3 FM and Observer & Eccentric Newspapers. Forest Health Services presents the 125th Annual Choral Union Series.

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