William Bolcom's Lady Liberty
Premiered by the Vocal Arts Ensemble
Under the skillful direction of Ben Cohen, the Vocal Arts Ensemble has grown into a highly respected small choir. Now it's putting on a multimedia extravaganza at Lydia Mendelssohn Theater on Saturday, May 9.
Extravaganza is the word for it. For the show, Ann Arbor's twenty-two-voice Vocal Arts Ensemble will be joined by the River Raisin Ragtime Revue-Tecumseh's twelve-piece ragtime theater orchestra-and People Dancing-Ann Arbor's six-member modern dance company-for the evening's main work: Gian Carlo Menotti's The Unicorn, The Gorgon, and the Manticore. Described by the composer as a madrigal fable, the piece presents the ironic parable of a Renaissance town beguiled by style and befuddled by fashion, with the choir telling the story through modernist madrigals, the dancers enacting it through expressive movements, and the orchestra providing sprightly instrumental interludes.
All this looks wonderful on paper, and, based on the evidence, wonders should abound in performance. But for me, the real reason to attend the show is the inclusion of the world premiere performance of William Bolcom's Lady Liberty. Actually, it's more of a shared world premiere: the short work for mixed chorus and piano was co-commissioned by Cohen's Vocal Arts Ensemble and by his brother's Master Singers of Lexington, Kentucky. "We wanted a big splash without taking a financial bath," Cohen explains, and splitting the cost was the way to go. For listeners who've followed the career of a man called Ann Arbor's and America's greatest living composer, the chance to hear another work from the hand that penned Songs of Innocence and Experience is not to be missed.
Based on a rehearsal I attended in early April, here's what listeners can expect from Lady Liberty: a resolute choral march setting a poem by Bolcom's longtime collaborator Arnold Wein-stein, with Mahler's harmonic irony, Gershwin's melodic sentimentality, and Ives's cranky individuality fused into Bolcom's singular postmodernist personality. Lady Liberty opens with a low dirge sung over almost jaunty piano accompaniment, flows into a more lyrical central section peaking
with a hymn to "Lovely Lady Liberty," then returns to the opening dirge for two impassioned climaxes leading to a long, lingering coda and a final, ecstatic cadence.
Whether that coda lingers too long is up to the listener. In rehearsal, Cohen kept the pace moving in the coda and took care to sculpt the final cadence into something more consoling than corny, holding the final chord not a moment too long. The only way to find out how it'll work out in performance, of course, is to hear it for yourself.
[Originally published in May, 2009.]