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Music review: William Bolcom 'Prometheus' premiere by the Pacific Symphony

November 19, 2010 |  4:02 pm

Bolcom
Jeffrey Biegel is a pianist with a dazzling technique, superb musicianship and a flair for the unnecessary. He has recorded a piano version of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” and Christmas carols from a classical pianist’s point of view. He enticed Ellen Zwilich to write her “Millennium Fantasy” for piano and orchestra and got it played all over the place and recorded. It is a weak piece.

Biegel went through even more trouble to arrange a commission for a companion work to Beethoven’s “Choral” Fantasy, which is rarely performed because it requires piano, orchestra and chorus and is lesser Beethoven. But this time Biegel chose William Bolcom, and his bad idea wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

The Pacific Symphony premiered Bolcom’s “Prometheus” Thursday night at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, with the Pacific Chorale. Biegel was soloist; Carl St.Clair conducted. Bolcom’s score, which is a setting of Lord Byron’s “Prometheus,” has something to say, and the performance said it brilliantly.

Biegel’s ambition here was considerable. Money is tight these days, so he got nine institutions (among them the Detroit Symphony, the Calgary Philharmonic and the University of Kentucky) to sign on. Four private donors were approached for the underwriting. It is a miracle that Biegel, who engineered everything himself and is technologically savvy, didn’t develop carpal tunnel syndrome from all the e-mailing this project must have entailed.

Ironically, it is just such technology that Bolcom’s “Prometheus” cautions against. In his program note, the composer called the Greek god who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mortals the perfect metaphor for our time. The Greeks understood that this technology was both of great use and destructive, and that maybe it was more than humans can handle.

Prometheus was punished by being bound to a boulder, an eagle daily devouring his liver. “We are all now Prometheus chained to our rock of technological dependence,” Bolcom writes. His is a dark, compelling piece.

The piano is Prometheus, and Biegel began rattling his chains with violent attacks at the lower range of the piano. A grim brass fanfare showed the official power of opposing forces.

Byron tackled technology’s two sides in the early 19th century, during the rise of science and the dawn of the Industrial Age. The chorus begins by declaiming the poem in Sprechstimme (spoken to rhythms) much as Schoenberg did in “Ode to Napoleon” when he set Byron’s poem for a speaker as a parable about Hitler’s Promethean ambitions.

Bolcom is famed for his stylistic versatility, and “Prometheus,” which lasts 22 minutes, contains not just one kind of music, although it isn’t wildly eclectic either. Byron’s intricate poem doesn’t seek easy solutions and Bolcom’s music remains dedicated to its complexity of thought and structure.

The lyrical impulse in “Prometheus” is progressive, and actual singing, most of it homophonic, arrives gradually in the choral part. The piano never loses its sinew or terrible resilience. But Bolcom finds inspiration at the end in the absolute power of nature and the radiance of the human spirit. A listener is left in a glow but with much unresolved. Humanity’s work gets harder all the time.

St.Clair and the Pacific Symphony have serious Bolcom credibility, having mounted a Bolcom festival and commissioned a major Bolcom score with Plácido Domingo as soloist to open its new concert hall in 2006. The playing and singing were solid and gripping.

In fact, performances all evening were very impressive. St.Clair led two Mozart symphonies –- Nos. 34 and 35 (“Haffner”) –- with grace, style and spirit. Biegel presented himself as a major Beethovenian in his sparkling playing of the "Choral" Fantasy, the score’s main highlight.   

The Saturday evening program will be broadcast live on KUSC. Catch it.

-- Mark Swed

Pacific Symphony with Jeffrey Biegel, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. $25 to $105. (714) 755-5799 or www.pacificsymphony.org.

Photo: Jeffrey Biegel as piano soloist in the world premiere of William Bolcom's "Prometheus" at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. Credit: Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times.

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