Violin Concerto in D major (1983) by William Bolcom

Bill Bolcom was my teacher at the University of Michigan. He is a brilliant orchestrator; over those four years and in the years since, he and his scores taught me more than I can possibly express in words. His Violin Concerto in D features soaring melodies and draws its harmonic and rhythmic language just as much from Ellington and Gershwin as from Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Aptly, it was written for the violinist Sergiu Luca, a classical musician colleague reveling in a newly-acquired jazz technique. Inspired by the playing of the great jazz violinist Joe Venuti (with whom Bolcom once jammed), the work is a true hybrid, combining bluesy lyricism with pulsating rhythms and more than a hint of crunchy chromaticism and polytonal clusters. Many of Venuti’s signature inflections – including sliding sixths and alternating left- and right-hand pizzicato (string plucking) – spring to life in the final movement, a bacchanal of pure danceable joy in its infectious lyricism. But the work harbors great textural subtlety as well, for example in the way Bolcom contrasts the colors of winds and strings in the gorgeously lush and moody middle movement. ACO recorded this concerto in 1991 with Luca and Dennis Russell Davies on the Argo label. For those who know Bolcom as a wonderfully gifted piano virtuoso who often performs his own works—such as the iconic Graceful Ghost Rag and the wonderfully inventive Cabaret Songs written for his wife, the soprano Joan Morris—this concerto shows the depth and clarity of Bolcom’s symphonic voice in all its eclectic glory.

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Recording: American Composers Orchestra / Dennis Russell Davies, Sergiu Luca, violin, 1991, Argo


William Bolcom (born May 26, 1938) is an American composer of keyboard, chamber, operatic, vocal, choral, and symphonic music. Born in Seattle, Washington, he studied composition with George Frederick McKay, John Verrall, Darius Milhaud, Leland Smith, and Olivier Messiaen.
He joined the faculty of the University of Michigan’s School of Music in 1973, was named the Ross Lee Finney Distinguished University Professor of Composition in 1994, and retired in 2008 after 35 years. Bolcom won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1988 for 12 New Etudes for Piano, and his setting of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience on the Naxos label won four Grammy Awards in 2005: Best Choral Performance, Best Classical Contemporary Composition, Best Classical Album, and Producer of the Year, Classical. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2006.
As a pianist Bolcom has performed and recorded his own work frequently in collaboration with his wife and musical partner, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris.  Their primary specialties in both concerts and recordings are cabaret songs, show tunes, and American popular songs of the 20th century.  They have recorded 25 albums together – Autumn Leaves was released in 2015.
As a composer, Bolcom has written four violin sonatas; nine symphonies; four operas (McTeague, A View from the Bridge, A Wedding, and Dinner at Eight), plus several musical theater operas; twelve string quartets; two film scores (Hester Street and Illuminata); incidental music for stage plays, including Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass; fanfares and occasional pieces; and an extensive catalogue of chamber, choral, and vocal works.

Nine world premieres in 2018 of new Bolcom works commemorated his 80th year.

Composer looking at music score
Portrait of William Bolcom. Credit: Peter Smith

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