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March 18, 2004

U -M hosts Bolcom's massive 'Songs of Innocence' in April
William Bolcom
Photo by Marcia Ledford -
U-M Photo Services

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—"Songs of Innocence and of Experience", the epic work of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and University of Michigan professor of composition William Bolcom, will be presented April 8 in Hill Auditorium. The little-performed but much acclaimed song cycle is based on the poetry of William Blake.

The performance, in collaboration with the U-M School of Music and the University Musical Society (UMS), will be conducted by Leonard Slatkin. About 450 musicians   from the University Symphony Orchestra, the Contemporary Directions Ensemble, U-M Choirs (University Choir, Chamber Choir, and Orpheus Singers), the UMS Choral Union, the Michigan State University Children's Choir, and more than a dozen soloists from the classical, pop, folk, country, and operatic realms will perform on an extended stage.

The work will also be recorded in Ann Arbor for release on the Naxos label, the first commercial recording ever to be made of the gargantuan work.   

The performance will occur nearly 20 years to the date after Hill Auditorium served as the venue for its U.S. premiere, and concludes the reopening celebration of the historic venue after an 18-month, $40 million restoration.

Bolcom's love affair with the works of poet William Blake led him to decide when he was 17 years old that he would eventually set these 46 poems to music. He began as a teenager, but put the project on hold for many years to pursue his education and further develop the compositional vocabulary he felt he needed to do the project justice. Most of the work was completed between 1973 and 1982 after Bolcom joined the faculty of U-M where he was finally able to devote the attention needed.

Bolcom used a stylistic approach similar to Blake's. As Bolcom noted in the program notes for the U.S. premiere of the piece in April 1984, "At every point Blake used his whole culture, past and present, high-flown and vernacular, as sources for his many poetic styles…All I did was use the same stylistic point of departure Blake did, in my musical settings.”

Leonard Slatkin
Photo by Marcia Ledford -
U-M Photo Services

The work contains references to jazz, reggae, gospel, ragtime, country and other popular idioms, as well as conventional classical styles. In an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1992, Bolcom explained: "We have innocent notions about ourselves, and sometimes we go around in a stupor because we actually believe them. Experience, on the other hand, teaches us something else. All around us are examples of innocence pitted against experience. Our politicians suggest that we be puritanical, yet our entire advertising industry is based on the idea of sexual titillation. On one page of a woman's magazine there is an article about dieting and on the next page is a recipe for the richest dessert you can imagine.”

Bolcom's "Songs of Innocence and of Experience" received its world premiere in Stuttgart, Germany, in January 1984, followed three months later by the U.S. premiere in Ann Arbor on April 11. The work's mammoth scale has resulted in relatively few performances over the past 20 years, notwithstanding extraordinary reviews.

The New York Times exclaimed, "What an astonishing, exhilarating, exhausting, and exasperating composition it is!” also calling it "a masterpiece of our time and place…gigantically ambitious.” The Boston Globe called it "the greatest achievement of synthesis in American music since Porgy and Bess” and the Chicago Tribune considered it "one of the finest and most important new American works of the decade.”

Leonard Slatkin, has conducted several of the performances: the St. Louis Symphony in performances in St. Louis and at Carnegie Hall (1992), and the current School of Music/UMS collaboration.

Composer/pianist Bolcom was born in Seattle in 1938. When he exhibited musical talent while still very young, he began private composition studies (at age 11) with John Verrall and piano with Berthe Poncy Jacobson at the University of Washington while performing extensively throughout the Seattle area. He earned his Bachelor's Degree from the University of Washington in 1958 and studied with Darius Milhaud at Mills College in California and at the Paris Conservatoire de Musique. He earned a doctorate in composition from Stanford University in 1964, working with Leland Smith. His many awards include the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for "12 New Etudes for Piano;" two Guggenheim Fellowships, several Rockefeller Awards and NEA grants; the 1977 Henry Russel Award (the highest academic prize given by the University of Michigan) and 20 years later the prestigious Henry Russel Lectureship; investiture in the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1992; and numerous other honorary degrees, grants, and awards.

Bolcom has been commissioned to compose new works by Lyric Opera of Chicago (most recently, "The Wedding," plus "A View from the Bridge" and "McTeague"), as well as by the orchestras of Philadelphia, St. Louis, Seattle, St. Paul, Vienna (Philharmonic), Baltimore, Washington DC (National Symphony), New York (Metropolitan Opera Orchestra) and many others. He composed a monodrama for soprano and string orchestra, "Medusa", which was performed in Ann Arbor by Catherine Malfitano and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra last season. His cabaret songs were also on display at the Hill Auditorium Gala Re-Opening with mezzo-soprano Measha and the composer at the piano. Further information about his compositions and recordings is available at

Slatkin is in his seventh season as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra and his third season as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London. He has served as music director of the St. Louis Symphony (1979-96), festival director of the Cleveland Orchestra's Blossom Festival (1990-99), and principal guest conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra (1997-2000). His more than 100 recordings have been recognized with four Grammy awards and more than 50 Grammy nominations.

Blake, an Englishman, was apprenticed as an engraver when he was just 14. With only a limited education, he was widely regarded as a madman for the visions of spirits and angels. He viewed his engravings and his poetry as inextricably entwined, creating graphic representations of his words in a highly labor-intensive process that resulted in a limited circulation of his poetry. Blake's success was largely limited during his own lifetime (1757-1827), in part because of the mystical visions that he claimed to see, but his poetry came to be appreciated decades after he died. He wrote these 46 poems, which juxtapose the innocence of a child with the "experience” of an adult, from 1789-1794. "Songs of Innocence" was published in 1789, and "Songs of Experience" in 1793. The combined edition, "Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul," was published in 1794.

Founded in 1880, the University of Michigan School of Music encompasses programs in dance, music, musical theatre, and theatre, The school is consistently ranked among the top performing arts schools in the country when compared with performance-oriented conservatories or with prestigious academic departments of music.

The University Musical Society was founded in 1879 and presents its 125 th season in 2003/2004. One of the oldest performing arts presenters in the country, UMS serves diverse audiences through multi-disciplinary performing arts programs in presentation, creation, and education. With a program steeped in music, dance, and theater, UMS hosts approximately 75 performances and 150 free educational activities each season. UMS also commissions new work, sponsors artist residencies, and organizes collaborative projects with local, national, and international partners. While proudly affiliated with the University of Michigan and housed on the U-M campus, UMS is a separate not-for-profit organization that supports itself from ticket sales, grants, contributions, and endowment income.

This UMS/U-M School of Music collaboration is funded in part by the University of Michigan and supported by the Maxine and Stuart Frankel Foundation and Linda and Maurice Binkow. The work is presented with additional support from media sponsors WGTE 91.3 FM and Observer & Eccentric Newspapers. Forest Health Services presents the 125th Annual Choral Union Series

University Musical Society

For tickets to the 8 p.m. April 8 performance, call the Michigan League Ticket Office, (734) 764-2538.

Outside the 734 area code and within Michigan, call toll-free (800) 221-1229, or visit UMS.


Contact: Joanne Nesbit
Phone: (734) 647-4418