Bolcom’s 4th Inspires at Millennium Park

On July 6 & 7 the Grant Part Festival Orchestra performed William Bolcom’s Fourth Symphony (“The Rose”) at Millennium Park in Chicago, where three short years ago they premiered his commissioned Concerto for Orchestra entitled Millennium. In this case it was longtime advocate and master of Bolcom scores, Dennis Russell Davies, who led the orchestra and guest mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor before a festival audience numbering well above 15,000.

Howard Reich of the Chicago Tribune wrote:

[First movement]….“Soundscape” begins briskly, then proceeds to restlessly shift mood, texture and temperament at every turn. Passages of crashing orchestral dissonance give way to sweeping lyric lines in the strings, which in turn yield to periods of busy, gnarly phrase-making across the ensemble…..The sheer copiousness of Bolcom’s melodic invention in “Soundscape” commands attention….

The second movement emerges as the heart of Bolcom’s Fourth Symphony, the composer having set Theodore Roethke’s poem “The Rose” to an orchestral accompaniment far more serene and contemplative than the score’s tempestuous beginnings. Here the weight of the music-making falls on the vocalist, and mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor gave Roethke’s profound poetry infinite shades of nuance in phrases sung and spoken…..O’Connor brought ample emotion to these pages, especially the lines in which the poem’s protagonist remembers the innocence of youth and a child’s love for her father with these words: “What need for heaven, then/ With that man, and those roses?” Both O’Connor’s and Morris’ readings recall Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” a work unmatched in its evocation of childlike wonder and one that palpably influenced Bolcom’s score.

The Chicago Classical Review also provided a lengthy account as did Chicago On the Aisle, here.

We here at Marks Music have also heard firsthand accounts of the event, which turned typical American summer concert programming upside down by placing Bolcom’s symphony on the 2nd half, with Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony on the first, to smashing effect. Joan Morris, who premiered the vocal part to “The Rose,” and may heard singing it with the St. Louis Symphony on New World Records, heaped praise upon O’Connor’s interpretation, as did the composer.

Bolcom’s Fourth Symphony is a towering achievement and may take its place among the great American song-symphonies. Maestro Davies’ singular decision to place the symphony on the second half of the program clearly made an impact on the argument for the primacy of the living composer; something of which all American conductors should take note.

July 10, 2018