William Bolcom was in town last week for the premiere of his Four Piedmont Choruses. The Piedmont Chamber Singers, some twenty strong, commissioned the piece for their 30th anniversary. Besides the commission, PCS sponsored a competition for young composers in honor of the occasion, which my student James Stewart won, so the evening also featured the premiere of Stewart’s The Desert.

Bolcom’s piece was performed twice, which is always nice in a premiere, but it was particularly nice this time, because Bill was the pianist in the first performance, and sat in the audience for the second (Ivan Seng, PCS’s regular pianist, played beautifully in the encore).
Four Piedmont Choruses uses wonderful texts by Kathryn Stripling Byer, who was also present. The music is classic Bolcom – craftsmanship, versatility, wit, beauty — all in fine proportion.

Stewart wrote most of The Desert as he was completing his Master’s here a year ago, so it was nicely familiar to me – I felt like a long-lost uncle encountering his successful, grown-up nephew. James’s music is courageous; he’s not afraid of taking aesthetic risks, and he has the good taste to find elegant ways to present his most unusual ideas. The piece is very strong, but I couldn’t help noting one small weak spot, sending him an email the next day with a gentle suggestion – which I know he is mature enough to accept or ignore.

I spent a lot of time with Bill Bolcom five years ago, when we commissioned his eleventh string quartet to commemorate the opening of our new chamber music hall. I’m still not sure if his social awkwardness is general, or if he is especially uncomfortable around other composers. I suspect it is a combination – he is always a little stiff with me, but comments he’s made about unpleasant encounters with other composers back up the impression that he is on his guard, protecting himself from attack.

The program was all American works: Billings, Beach, Dello Joio, Chadwick, Hadley, Bolcom, Stewart and local composer William Stevens, whose Three Not Very Old Ballads was very attractive. The mayor was on hand to issue a proclamation in honor of the PCS’s 30th anniversary, and the chorus responded with well-wrought performances of challenging rep.

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