CLASSICAL MUSIC: Bolcom: Songs of Innocence and of Experience; RFH, London / Radio 3

Click to follow
The large audience for William Bolcom's Songs of Innocence and of Experience at the Royal Festival Hall on Sunday night seems to have taken someone at the BBC by surprise, for the supply of programme books soon ran out. Bolcom calls his setting for solos, chorus and orchestra a "Musical Illumination" of Blake's poems. How illuminating it is you might question, for there are no unsettling musical challenges to match Blake's. Bolcom's level is middle-brow entertainment, conceived in the broadest eclectic terms, ranging from the styles of rock and country music to high-flown symphonic dissonance, though never very much of it.

Forty-six poems are set in nine sections, each embracing the full gamut of contrasts that Bolcom says reflect the varied styles of Blake's words. They're mainly solos or choruses, sometimes both in one poem, but there's no mixing of soloists in duets or ensembles. In this performance, conducted by the exuberant Leonard Statkin, there were six "classical" singers, as well as Bolcom's wife Joan Morris, whose personal, homespun style is best described as folk or country; a throaty black rock singer, Andre De Shields; and, in just one setting, a speaker, Majid El Bushra. They didn't sit decorously on stage waiting their turn, as in oratorio, but walked on and off, while the New London Children's Choir filed in front of the stage when required, and the BBC Symphony Chorus and Swingle Singers sat behind the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The Swingles and all the soloists were amplified, though that didn't always make their words clear, and there were some neat, usually unobtrusive, changes of lighting, or highlighting, to dramatise the musical deployment, or orchestration, of these considerable forces. Just as a spectacle, it was impressively prepared.

The least that can be said about the music is that you don't know what to expect, and once you do, perhaps the distinct spiritual climate that Bolcom claims for each section becomes clearer. On a first hearing, this wasn't evident. And if the clashes and juxtapositions produce, in Bolcom's words, "a deeper and more universal harmony", reflecting Blake's assertion that "without contraries is no progression", then that may simply be a matter of getting used to them.

Whatever Bolcom claims for his lifelong pursuit of a higher synthesis, he doesn't communicate a strongly personal viewpoint, like Mahler or Ives, both of whom also wrestled with contradictions. The eclecticism of Bolcom's settings isn't the problem, but the vague character of his more "serious", extended tonal (rather than atonal) style is.

"Earth's Answer", from Songs of Experience, sung by one of the strongest soloists, Christine Brewer, started a bit like Britten - and there were several points elsewhere that seemed like smudged recollections of A Spring Symphony - but then it gets far less contained, the voice part expands immensely, and the setting ends with a vast orchestral crescendo, cut off abruptly to end the section. Such a gesture makes you wonder if Bolcom imagines he is tapping his greatest depths here. But the rock and country- flavoured settings seemed more personal. Still, it's something to set "The Sick Rose" effectively - with an almost Ellingtonian accompaniment of low, slowly turning woodwind and double-bass - and "The Tyger" was arresting, with the chorus speaking against pounding drums. On the whole, though, Bolcom's quieter, if you like smaller, statements are more telling than his indulgent bigger gestures. The Nocturne that opened the last section of Songs of Innocence, casually assembling a few plops on percussion, stays in the memory, while the final frantic Interlude, with its corny organ fortissimo and the ear-splitting finale marshalling the entire forces, merely seemed conventional.

Adrian Jack