That Old Blake Magic
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
Franz Schubert: Symphony No. 4 in C Minor “Tragic”
Johannes Brahms: Serenade No. 2 in A Major, Op. 16
William Bolcom: Symphony No. 8 for chorus and orchestra on William Blake’s Prophetic Poems - New York Première
Tanglewood Festival Chorus, John Oliver (Conductor), Boston Symphony Orchestra, James Levine (Conductor)
The great American composer William Bolcom has been under the spell of two Blake magics since he was a teenager. One was Eubie Blake, the great and ragtime pianist, about whom Bolcom has written books and music. The other magic came from William Blake, whose Songs of Innocence and Experience he had set in a huge oratorio for soloists, chorus and orchestra.
Bolcom’s latest Blake work was given its New York premiere with a marvelous cast. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Tanglewood Chorus—the latter singing the complicated score from memory—and James Levine on the podium. No composer deserved better.
William Blake, though, deserved nothing better than 35 minutes of great volumes, massive choirs, a mammoth orchestra, and the kind of huge oratorio reminiscent of Edwardian Gargantua or Scriabin at his most supernatural.
But this was only right. Blake’s poetry from the visionary Prophetic Books is neither soft nor graceful, nor lyrical. It incessantly shouts out with Book of Revelations mystery, Tom Paine-like idealism, the pantheistic joy of Walt Whitman, and (unfortunately) some crazy ersatz Biblical nonsense which could have come from the Book of Mormon.
Any composer who used fewer resources simply could not get it right.
William Bolcom knows his orchestra. The first bang-on forte fortissimo note, following by the buzzing polytonal chorus was an indication of the whole. At times, Bolcom gave vent to musical imitation (the horns blazed through after the sound of lions). At other times, as in The Shadowy Daughter of Urthona, the rarified women’s group (as well as a lovely solo by Lorenzee Cole) illustrated this feminine poem.
With such complex harmonies from the chorus, with equally elaborate orchestral play, hearing the words was night impossible. But glancing at the printed words was no help either. One simply gave in to the invention of the four movements (though quite a few delicate souls walked out).
This was no effort, since Bolcom is no dogmatist: his music could have been fustian, but in the finale chorale of Blake’s essence—“For every thing that lives is Holy”—one felt that this music too was holy, in its passion and its longing for glory.
The program began with Levine at his most fluid and picturesque in Schubert’s Fourth Symphony, which, from the very first chords, showed the conductor extracting every bit of color from the wonderful work.
Unfortunately, the scheduled group of Schubert songs was cancelled due to the illness of Thomas Quastoff. Brahms’ Second Serenade was a mediocre pleasantry, made darker with the lack of violins, but in the last two movements light enough.
The evening, though, belonged to Bolcom. He leaped on the stage, ran to the dais, and oh, after William Blake, how we would have loved to hear him play some Eubie Blake solos on the piano!
Even the most heavenly choirs need sweet magic laughter.