Named 2007 Composer of the Year by Musical America and honored with a Grammy Award for his ground-breaking setting of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, William Bolcom is a composer of cabaret songs, concertos, sonatas, operas, symphonies, and much more. He was awarded the 1988 Pulitzer Prize in Music for his 12 New Etudes for piano.
With his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, he has concertized for over 40 years throughout the United States, Canada, and abroad. In addition to their live performances, Bolcom and Morris have recorded 25 albums of music drawn from the American Popular Songbook. Their first album, After the Ball, garnered a Grammy nomination for Joan Morris. Their recent recordings include: two albums of songs by lyricist E. Y. “Yip” Harburg and Gus Kahn; Bolcom’s complete Cabaret Songs, written with lyricist Arnold Weinstein; Someone Talked: Memories of World War II with tenor Robert White and narrator Hazen Schumacher; and Autumn Leaves, a collection of 21 popular cabaret songs.
In the spring of 2007 Bolcom was feted in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, with a two and a half-week festival of his music, including master classes, recitals and concerts of his vocal, organ and chamber music. Titled Illuminating Bolcom, the festival was highlighted by two performances of Songs of Innocence and of Experience accompanied by animated projections of Blake’s illuminations.
Recent productions of A View from the Bridge have been mounted by Washington National Opera, the University of Texas/Austin, and the Rome Opera. In 2016 eleven performances of his first opera, McTeague, were produced at the Landestheater in Linz, Austria. The recording of Prometheus [text by Lord Byron] with pianist Jeffrey Biegel, the Pacific Symphony and Pacific Chorale and Canciones de Lorca with tenor René Barbera, both conducted by Carl St. Clair, is now available on Naxos. His Eighth Symphony, premiered in February 2008 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by James Levine, is available for downloading on the BSO website. His next opera, Dinner at 8, will be premiered in March 2017 by the Minnesota Opera.
Bolcom 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.
He has recorded for Advance, Jazzology, Musical Heritage, Nonesuch, Vox, Omega, Naxos, Centaur, and Albany, among many others.
Born in Portland, Oregon, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris attended Gonzaga University in Spokane prior to her scholarship studies at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. She continued speech and voice studies with Clifford Jackson and Frederica Schmitz-Svevo while appearing in off-Broadway and road productions and with harpist Jay Miller at the Cafe Carlyle, the Waldorf-Astoria’s Peacock Alley, and other Manhattan night spots.
Since 1973 Joan Morris has concertized with her husband and accompanist, William Bolcom, singing popular songs from the late 19th-century through the 1920s and ’30s, the latest songs by Leiber and Stoller, and cabaret songs by Bolcom and poet-lyricist Arnold Weinstein.
In the words of the Chicago Tribune, “Her voice is notable for ease, flexibility, expressiveness; you understand every word she sings, and in these songs the words deserve to be heard. She projects not just a song, but the character singing it, and gives that character her own irresistibly funny and winning personality.”
From 1981-2009 Ms. Morris taught a cabaret class at the School of Music, University of Michigan. In April 1998 she produced a new musical there, Mina and Colossus, written by the young composer Sam Davis and based on the life of poet Mina Loy. In April 2003 Ms. Morris wrote, produced, co-directed, and starred in a musical revue, The Police Gazette, based on materials housed in the Clements Library at the U of M. In December 2005 she wrote, produced, directed, and had a featured role in Barnum’s Nightingale, based on Jenny Lind’s concert tour of America in 1850 sponsored by P. T. Barnum. The latter two entertainments were presented at the Clements Library where Ms. Morris was Adjunct Curator. She retired from the University of Michigan in December 2009.
In April 2004 Ms. Morris was a soloist in the performance of Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience (texts by William Blake), which celebrated the reopening of the newly-renovated Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The concert, which combined 450 orchestra and chorus members from the University of Michigan School of Music and community with professional soloists, was conducted by Leonard Slatkin and took place almost 20 years to the day after its 1984 U.S. premiere. The Naxos recording of this event went on to win four Grammy Awards, garnering recognition for her as Soloist on the album. In 1984 she sang in the world premiere of Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience in Stuttgart and the U.S. premiere in Ann Arbor. She has also performed Songs with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London’s Royal Festival Hall, which was broadcast live over BBC Radio 3 (1996), and in Costa Mesa with the Pacific Symphony Orchestra (2003).
In 1979 she played the role of Polly in the Guthrie Theater’s production of The Beggar’s Opera (with music by Darius Milhaud and William Bolcom). In the 1987 premiere of Bolcom’s Fourth Symphony, she sang the lyrics of Theodore Roethke’s poem “The Rose” with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin; the 1988 recording on New World Records was subsequently nominated for a Grammy. She repeated the work with The Seattle Symphony Orchestra in May 1996. In April 1990 she was featured in the world premiere of the Weinstein/Bolcom musical theater work, Casino Paradise, and can be heard on the cast album issued by Koch Classics. She repeated her part as The Nurse for the May 2004 revival at The Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia and again as part of the American Songbook Series in the Allen Room of Jazz at Lincoln Center in February 2005. In January 2007 she narrated Walton’s “Facade Suite” with the Boston Symphony Chamber Players.
On their travels throughout the United States, Canada, and abroad, Joan Morris and William Bolcom frequently give master classes focusing on “classic American popular song.” Recent residencies have been at College Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati, Northwestern University, Rice University (Houston, TX), SongFest (Los Angeles, CA), and the University of Wisconsin/Madison. Occasionally they can be heard underlying TV documentaries featuring the American Popular Song era.