Recital Review Print



The First Couple of the American Popular Song

November 22, 2002 - Greensboro, NC:


On November 22, composer William Bolcom and his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris presented a recital in the sanctuary of Christ United Methodist Church in Greensboro on the "Music for a Great Space" series. The artists were introduced by the immediate past president of United Arts of Greensboro, John Santuccio, who stated that "No one can sell a song like Joan Morris." The songs in question are popular songs, mostly by composers for the musical stage, setting original texts by their wordsmith collaborators, and not art songs setting texts of famous poets or authors. The program listed composers and indicated that the works would be announced from the stage, the lion's share of which task was handled by Bolcom, whose diction and enunciation are, alas, no match for Morris, whose every word was crystal clear. In addition, Morris is a dream when it comes to expressive delivery, with facial expressions, body language and gestures that bring the words to life. She downright incarnates the songs!

Bolcom & Morris sold us eleven songs in the first half, including Scott Joplin's "Pineapple Rag Song," Kendis and Paley's "Bill," Paul Dresser's (brother of writer Theodore Dreiser) "On the Banks of the Wabash," Eubie Blake's "Good Night Angeline," Carrie Jacobs Bond's "Just A-wearyin' For You," Cole Porter's "Two Little Babes in the Wood," Irving Berlin's "Lazy," Burton Lane's "How Are Things in Glocca Morra" from his Finian's Rainbow , and concluding with two by Vincent Youmans: "Be Good To Me" and "Great Day." The audience was invited to sing along on the second chorus of Percy Wenrich's "On Moonlight Bay" early in the set which effectively brought it on board, and it loosened up and applauded enthusiastically throughout the evening, at the end of which the pair held it enthralled in the palms of their hands.

Bolcom came back early from the break to play two solo piano works, the first his "Graceful Ghost" Rag and the second, "Odeon," by Ernesto Nazareth. Then Morris joined him to sell another ten songs beginning with a pairing (even though they claim to dislike medleys) of Burton Lane's "Everything I Have Is Yours" and Rodgers and Hart's "Everything I've Got Belongs To You." The set also included Jay Gorney and E. Y. (Yip) Harburg's "Brother Can You Spare A Dime," Harold Arlen and Harburg's "Lydia," Johnny Mercer and Jerome Kern's "I'm Old Fashioned," Gershwin and Weill's "Tchaikovsky," Bob Merrill's "Mira," Bolcom's own "At The Last Lousy Moments of Love" (one of his 24 cabaret songs to texts by Arnold Weinstein), and concluded with two by Gershwin: "Isn't It a Pity" and "They All Laughed."

The pair rewarded the audience's warm reception and hearty applause with two encores: Rodgers and Hart's "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" and Bolcom's own "Lime Jello Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise." The latter has a special place in their hearts and repertoire - and in the hearts of all their fans - because of its inspiration and development. Bolcom wrote the text and music himself in Seattle when they were there for a performance early on in their now nearly 30-year professional collaboration, but Morris told him it would be too difficult for her to master. She did so in secret, however, and sang it for him at their wedding in 1975 - and on many recitals since.

At one point in his introductory comments to a song, Bolcom referred to himself and Morris as "the curators of American song." Their repertoire is enormous, their discography, on several labels, is quite extensive, and they show no signs of wearying of their advocacy, with plans for adding more songs and more recordings in the works. They are, to use the jargon of the theatre (musical or other), real troopers. If this were not a republic, they would be called the "Royal" or perhaps even the "Imperial Couple of American Song," to such a degree have they devoted their lives to this genre and become identified with it. Still, Bolcom finds the time to compose such things as the opera The View From The Bridge , which will open at the Met on December 5, as well as much other music (one of his works was on the program of a recent Raleigh Civic Symphony Chamber Orchestra performance, reviewed on this site), and they both handle full teaching loads at the University of Michigan! They are inspired and inspiring.

They seem not to tire of traveling great distances to peddle their wares either, for they will return to NC for a recital at Wingate University next spring. Watch our calendar for details, and make the trip, especially if you've never heard them before. They promised a different program, and this reviewer hopes to be in the audience!