William Bolcom: Symphony No. 3, for Chamber Orchestra

performed by the Louisville Orchestra under Lawrence Leighton Smith

(cover image by Jennifer Arlem Molina)

William Elden Bolcom is still alive. He was born May 26, 1938 in Seattle. He entered the University of Washington at the exceedingly young age of 11 to study composition and piano, later studying with Milhaud at Mills College and Messiaen at the Paris Conservatoire.

His output is vast, including nine symphonies, a dozen quartets, four violin sonatas, four operas, concertos for piano, violin, clarinet, trombone flute, as well as a number of song cycles, among other things.

Bolcom’s third symphony was premiered on September 15, 1979 by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra under Dennis Russell Davies in St. Paul, MN. It is in four movements, as follows:

  1. Alpha
  2. Scherzo vitale
  3. Chiaroscuro
  4. Omega

The symphony lasts for about 32 minutes, the outer movements being of about equal lengths, with the third Chiaroscuro movement lasting a mere two and a half minutes. I’m intrigued by the Alpha and Omega titles for the outer movements, but have as of yet found no explanation or reason for them.

I think it’s interesting how listening habits, a musical diet, can affect or inform impressions of other music. For example, at a concert recently, I heard the world premiere of a work that sounded very American to my ear, but had I not been listening to oodles of American music lately, I may not have thought that way.

In some of the very interesting contrasts in Bolcom’s third symphony here, I am reminded a bit, perhaps arbitrarily, of Alfred Schnittke, who I’ve also been listening to more of lately. There are a few wild surprises, similar juxtapositions, in this work, but that’s not to say they actually have a lot (or anything) in common.

The work presents an interesting trajectory, and maybe it’s just my having looked at this cover image so many times, but I have come to hear the work’s first and last movements as the sun rising and setting, respectively. Viewing the work overall, it’s actually quite serene. There are bursts of dissonance or violence, and in the quiet moments also some very interesting harmonies, but it’s a serious work.

I think I’ve quoted the user Discophage in some other article somewhere, but he too reviews this album and comments on the work thusly:

…one of the most appealing features of Bolcom’s serious style, I feel, is its stylistic freedom, the fact that it is subservient to no compositional dictums: Bolcom can write music as “advanced” as anybody, but he never loses his sense of color and drama and his appeal.

That’s perhaps more informative and elegant than saying, “I thought of Schnittke when I listened to this” for perhaps completely circumstantial reasons. The other review for that album, one Bryan L., says that the entire album is for you “If you enjoy post-romantic music, influenced by mid-20th century ‘modernism’, without going ‘too far’…”

The opening of Alpha is near-silent for about a minute, and the whispers of strings are broken finally, almost 90 seconds in, by a solo flute, then bassoon, English horn, and so on. It’s ethereal, but also a bit unsettling. It makes you expect a jump-scare to shatter the eerie stillness, and the increased chirpiness of various contributors in this chamber setting is a bit of a relief, as the music swells to a climax rather than explodes in our faces. While we might not always know exactly where it’s going, it certainly never stops. Even in the moments of blissful, melodic tranquility, it’s still moving forward.

I might be delusional, but I feel like there is a sense of thematic unity to the movement, even if it’s not a traditional sonata form. There’s an even more striking contrast of material, though, in the second movement. The scherzo bustles to life, with flutters from winds, crunchy strings, jazzy elements, electronic instruments (is that some kind of an organ, or a tape?), really a wild hodgepodge, a patchwork quilt of sounds, like flashing memories. Imagine putting Schnittke and Ives in a blender and making a scherzo out of it. There emerge, surprisingly, comically, almost classical-era phrases in among the charming chaos, like a violin solo and more electronic hums. A contrasting subject, then, is a smooth, almost waltzy, almost schmaltzy caricature of ballroom type music on strings. It’s brilliantly written, but so out of place in this complex and at times chaotic symphony, but here it is, a weird tangential offshoot that we can both enjoy and laugh at.

This jarringly simple music tries to stick around, and appears over or under other orchestral things, creating a very interesting conflict in the scherzo that I’m not sure is supposed to be plainly Haydnesque and comedic or really, surprisingly darkly satirical. Regardless, it’s very interesting. It ends quirkily.

The third movement, Chiaroscuro, would seem to be our slow movement, but it’s no adagio. It’s similar in its captivating contrasts to the scherzo, really, but a bit more laid back, still full of color and interesting juxtapositions. Ultimately, though, with as brief and lightweight as it is, it feels more like an intermezzo than anything.

And then begins Omega, also quietly, pensive. It stays so, nearly still for about three minutes, more than a quarter of the movement’s playing time. It seems that here, finally, is the slow movement of the work, the grand climax, the final statement of the work being a soft, poignant one rather than fireworks and celebration, something that dies away quietly like Mahler’s ninth. The movement moves toward a comforting, serene placidity, but it’s broken by the characters who first made their appearance at the very beginning of the work: flute, then bassoon…

It seems the work asks more questions than it answers. Ready to decide on a serene, mellifluous conclusion, echoes of the opening come back, tying this entire work together. It was already quite tight in construction, I think, but the conclusion, its goal, is ultimately a mystery. Or maybe I’m looking for something that isn’t there at all, not seeing the forest for the trees.

It’s an interesting work, no question, but one that intrigues more than enthralls me. I hear a city bustle to life in the early morning and come quiet again with the sunset, with small stirs and movements here and there as the work ends, but that’s just me. What do you hear?

If you stay tuned, you’ll hear a truly incredible symphony in a couple of days, and then our last week of American works in this series. Thank you so much for reading.

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2 thoughts on “William Bolcom: Symphony No. 3, for Chamber Orchestra

  1. You made me curious here… Contemporary US composer – terra incognita more or less to me and I confess it has less to do with a lack of interest in the composers and much more with a lack of enthusiasm about anything connected with the US (and by extrapolation with that fool in the White House). I just bought Bolcom’s 1st and 3rd symphony and the Concerto for Saxophone and Band. Very curious now, thank you for the inspiration!

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