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CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

Orchestra Hall

October 10

CHAMBER MUSIC OF FENGSHI YANG

Goodspeed Hall

October 11

Is William Bolcom a composer whose time has come? Long respected for his craftsmanship and scholarship--he has a PhD from Stanford and is a professor at the University of Michigan--the 55-year-old Bolcom writes music that resists easy classification. Though conversant with modern idioms from neoclassicism to serialism to jazz, he prefers to fuse disparate elements into highly theatrical works that often dare to be humorous. This wildly eclectic and vernacular approach has endeared him neither to critics puzzled by his intentions nor to fellow academics infatuated with rigid formalism. In critical surveys of postwar American music his name ranks way below others like Ned Rorem and David Del Tredici, two conservatives who share his penchant for drama and variety. Even worse, he's regarded at times as a Bernstein copycat or a highbrow Andrew Lloyd Webber. But most concertgoers--especially those who frequent summer festivals--know him simply as Bill Bolcom the jolly accompanist for mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, who happens to be his wife, in delightfully wide-ranging song recitals.

Since the early 80s, however, Bolcom's star has been rising steadily. His 1984 setting of William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience is a three-hour multimedia extravaganza that seems to connect with today's audiences. The 1987 Twelve New Piano Etudes earned him further recognition from the east-coast establishment as well as a Pulitzer Prize. And on Saturday his much-ballyhooed McTeague, an operatic update of Frank Norris's muckraking classic, premieres at Lyric Opera. If the 80s belonged to Philip Glass and his lulling minimalism, the 90s could belong to the postmodern expressionists, including Bolcom and John Corigliano, who pack classical and pop styles and instrumentations into emotionally urgent, socially relevant, yet wryly entertaining commentaries on the latest social and political issues.

Earlier this month the Chicago Symphony Orchestra gave the first local performances of Bolcom's Fifth Symphony, which was completed for the Philadelphia Orchestra only two years ago. In a program note--clearly written and remarkably free of jargon for a contemporary composer--Bolcom relates the long genesis of the symphony that ended once he found "all the material . . . had a two-edged ironic feeling to it, at once sardonic and grieving, like a satire." Patchwork parody is perhaps a more apt description. The 20-odd-minute symphony opens with the orchestra's various sections creating an eerie, murky soundscape. Like bubbling lava, sounds emerge spontaneously, then swell and burst. Gradually the seemingly random utterances converge, culminating in a show of force. The bass-heavy dirge that follows is all seriousness--until the harp interjects a series of giggles. The scherzo movement then segues into a stretch of touching Mahlerian languor.

By this point Bolcom's purposeful subversion of the listener's expectations is apparent. In the next movement a macabre Ravel-esque waltz is interrupted by a hymn on the xylophone. Just as suddenly, the music turns sentimental and poplike, capped by a schmaltzy interlude from the violins. Monastery bells usher in the finale (subtitled "Machine"). The ensuing brass chorale is deliberately off pitch, relieved at one point by a baleful outburst from the trombone. The music then turns frenetic, building up suspense: Is it headed toward a clear resolution? Not surprisingly it isn't. Instead it chugs along in syncopation and finally runs out of steam.

Bolcom's merry melange of quasi-quotes and effects is charming, at times startlingly amusing, and democratic in its embrace of myriad ideas. But on first hearing it seems too amorphous structurally to be a successful symphony, and it doesn't furnish a musical context or theatrical premise that would allow the irony to come through well--unlike, say, Le boeuf sur le toit by his teacher Darius Milhaud. There are clever Ivesian touches, but the thematic unity of Ives at his best is lacking. Like Corigliano, Bolcom is a pasticheur, expert at assembling and molding materials for dramatic effect.

Saturday's performance was a composer's dream. The orchestra seemed genuinely fond of the music, in contrast to the violent dislike some of its members had for a symphonic work by Ralph Shapey the CSO premiered last fall. Dennis Russell Davies, a longtime Bolcom collaborator and the conductor for Lyric's McTeague, coaxed gorgeous sounds from the percussion and brass sections, rightfully emphasizing the music's strengths--its beguiling twists and turns.

The concert opened with Kurt Atterberg's Suite no. 3 for Violin, Viola, and Strings (1921). A Swede with wide-ranging interests who left a large body of work, Atterberg (1887-1974) remained curiously loyal to his 19th-century Romantic roots and seemed untouched by the musical ferments of this century. This suite, arranged from incidental music for a Maeterlinck play, reminds one of Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll" in its intense, almost unrelenting lyricism. But at times its sweetness overreaches and turns cloying. Violinist Joseph Golan and violist Charles Pikler played their solos with a sense of decorum.

After intermission the orchestra responded to Davies's energetic direction with a vibrant, at times emotionally harrowing reading of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony. The performance loudly proclaimed the music's swing from romantic rapture to self-pity. I hope Davies will be back on the Orchestra Hall podium very soon.

Fengshi Yang claims to be the first woman from mainland China to receive an American PhD in composition. Far more impressive is the fact that she survived the University of Chicago's grueling doctoral program under the tutelage of Shulamit Ran, John Eaton, and Ralph Shapey. Last Sunday, two years after graduation, Yang returned to the U. of C. campus for a recital of her major chamber works from the last four years. A measure of the growing respect for her music was the number of well-known local instrumentalists who participated in the event.

The program had an arithmetical scheme: a bassoon solo, a clarinet and marimba duet, a wind trio, a string quartet, and a brass quintet. Because this afternoon concert started almost a half hour late, I could stay only for the first half.

What I heard indicated a talent in search of an identity. Born in Shanghai, Yang studied at that city's conservatory, where her father was a professor. In 1985, after obtaining a master's from Northern Illinois University, she moved on to the U. of C. Like most composers from another country or with a strong ethnic background--her mentor, the Israeli-born Ran, for example--Yang tries to incorporate elements from her own culture into her music. Of course she's not the first musician from China to do so: among her contemporaries, Lyric Opera's former composer-in-residence Bright Sheng, also from Shanghai, has done this in a remarkably appealing way. Yang is not quite at his level--not yet, anyway. But there's little doubt that she's a meticulous craftsman and a thoughtful experimenter with instrumentation.

Longing, the duet for clarinet and marimba, written in early '88, is sensitive to the ways percussion and wind instruments can intermingle. Its first section has a B-flat clarinet making sharp calls--evoking memories, perhaps--that are answered by the soothing chimes of the marimba. The second section reverses the roles: now a bass clarinet croons in mellow, long-breathed phrases, while the marimba raises its voice in urgent, passionate flourishes. Toward the end the B-flat clarinet returns, accompanied by the fading echoes of the marimba. The performance benefited from the give-and-take between John Bruce Yeh and Patricia Dash, both members of the CSO, whose precise playing made the duet more than what it really is--an engaging, well-argued academic exercise.

Engrossed, a bassoon solo composed in early '89, is a straightforward, almost boring showcase that conjures up a melancholic air. Yang, who seems fond of the tonality of wind and brass instruments, might have thought rhythmic contrasts alone could sustain interest in such a piece. They can't, but Lewis Kirk's playing was quite good.

The Old is Yang's tribute to her roots and a deliberate attempt at chinoiserie. The four movements of this 1988 string quartet each represent an ancient poetical expression--"yin," "tzui," "nin," and "kuang"--whose meaning is unfortunately lost on those of us not versed in classic Chinese literature. According to Yang, her thematic materials are taken from the Beijing Opera, and one can detect folk strains throughout the piece--in the cello's melodramatic aria in the "tzui" movement, for example. With her piquant rhythms and modal shifts, Yang, like Shen, looks to Bartok as a model. But she still lacks the Bartokian sense of conciseness: her music meanders at times, and the way she ends it--with a fade--is unconvincing. The players--violinists Sharon Polifrone and Lee Joiner, violist Keith Conant, and cellist Elizabeth Start--were uniformly good, especially when they launched into the propulsive stretch toward the end.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Peter Yates.

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