Bolcom’s four movements excerpt three prophetic books: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (but no proverbs), America a Prophecy, and Jerusalem The Emanation of the Great Albion. Except for brief solos, the chorus sings everything (a heavy workout for John Oliver’s intrepid Tanglewood Festival Chorus). The style is “modern rhetorical” — all-too-familiar-sounding, unattractively gnarled vocal lines, often shouted. The piece begins with a ferocious bang, and many deafening crashes follow. Bolcom says that he was “after that kind of theatrical style that one finds in Blake, the phantasmagorical, that supersaturation of color and emotion.” There are a few appealingly quiet interludes (flute and vibes at the beginning and the end of the slow third movement); the mysterious, percussion-only beginning of the second movement creates an intriguing sound world.
But the symphony as a whole is a dissatisfying combination of the obvious and the impenetrable. There are blatant musical gestures: fortissimo explosions on words like “rages,” “terror,” and “howling”; a whispered “silent.” Blake’s long lists suggest no musical distinctions: “helms, and shields, and chariot horses, elephants: banners, castles, slings and rocks” all sound the same. I’m pretty familiar with these poems, and I tried valiantly to follow the text, but I couldn’t determine what the raging was all about. The opaque wall of choral singing was more a barrier than an invitation to enter the poems, and the musical bombast had no personality. If I hadn’t known, I doubt I could have guessed the composer was Bolcom.
Worst of all were the last few minutes, a turgid exercise in aggressively insistent affirmation — the relentless repetition, on an upward spiral, of Blake’s phrase “For every thing that lives is Holy.” It reminded me of Leonard Bernstein’s “Make our garden grow,” the uplifting finale of Candide, which was perhaps an unconscious model for Bolcom but — though also corny — at least has an unforgettable tune.
Martin Pearlman and his Boston Baroque returned 18 years later to one of their greatest hits, Purcell’s extended incidental music for Dryden’s play King Arthur, again connecting the numbers with Laurence Senelick’s witty rhymed plot summaries with lines and stage directions lifted directly from the play. These were recited (and slightly modified) by poet, former laureate, and guest star of The Simpsons and The Colbert Report Robert Pinsky, who deliciously declaimed the heroic monarch, growled the Saxon villain (“We know priest Osmond’s a barbarian,/Because he prays to gods Wagnerian”) and whimpered the endangered heroine. (This is pre–Round Table, pre-Guinevere Arthur: “Good friends in stall seats and in gallery,/Our tale’s not drawn from Thomas Malory.”) Reading Dryden, he seemed to be tasting every syllable.
In 1990, I remember higher highs: my 10 Best list for that year included soprano Nancy Armstrong’s sublime rendition of Purcell’s great aria “Fairest Isle,” Venus’s paean to England. And a deeper sense of Purcell’s underlying seriousness: bass-baritone David Ripley, as the Genius of the island, made something profound and moving out of his shivering prayer to return to his icy kingdom. This time, David Kravitz turned that aria into a gem of comedy (you could practically hear his teeth chattering), and he did the same as Comus in the rousing harvest hymn, rolling his r’s and hitting the silent h’s in the one number that got its own round of applause. The soprano parts were divided between pretty-voiced Sara Heaton, a recent BU graduate and Despina in BB’s Cosí fan tutte, and even prettier-voiced and more characterful Kristen Watson. Their Siren duet was a delight, but Heaton’s pinched top notes in “Fairest Isle” made me wish Watson were singing it (or Armstrong!). Tenor Marc Molomot, who began with countertenorish falsetto, sang with too many fussy dynamic changes within each phrase. (His odd style worked better in Monteverdi, when he sang both Seneca and the Nurse in Boston Baroque’s Poppea.)