Bolcom & Morris

A few weeks ago, I had the honor and privilege of attending both a master class and a recital given by mezzo-soprano Joan Morris and her composer/pianist husband, William Bolcom. I have been a fan of Bolcom & Morris for a long time, dating back to my discovery of Mr. Bolcom’s first two volumes of Cabaret Songs back in the early 1990s, when I performed them on the In Series at Mt. Vernon College as part of a quartet. (That was an interesting “3Bs” program – usually the “3Bs” are Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, but in this case, it was Bizet, Brahms and Bolcom. I got to sing the Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzes and the Bolcom songs, both of which were staged. But I digress.)

Besides performing Mr. Bolcom’s compositions, Bolcom & Morris are known for their recordings of turn-of-the-century (20th) songs and works from the Great American Songbook. These pieces were a large portion of the concert they performed at Howard Community College on March 1. They also did pieces from the Cabaret Songs and a few pieces by those great art song composers, Leiber & Stoller. (Seriously, the guys who wrote “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Hound Dog” wrote these fantastic pieces. But more about that in a moment.)

Ms. Morris is a true artist in her delivery of the American songbook. Her performance was nuanced and authentic, with unique interpretations of the material that drew in her audience. Mr. Bolcom balanced her at the piano, playing with bravado or intimacy as the songs required. In the hands of lesser artists, a lot of the material could have been just a bunch of old songs, possibly perceived as corny by some people. This was not the case in this performance.

While I did not attend Mr. Bolcom’s piano master class the previous evening, I did attend their joint vocal master class in the afternoon. As giving as they are as performing artists, they were equally so as teaching artists. Each singer was given their full attention and appreciation, and Ms. Morris was particularly adept at finding the right trigger to bring out a deeper understanding of the text for some of the singers.

After the master class, I went up to them to introduce myself and told them that I had discovered a bootleg cassette of theirs via a friend years ago, and that I had played it so often that it broke. These were the early days of the internet for me, and I really wanted to find out who wrote these songs, and since I knew that they taught at the University of Michigan, I checked out the website to see if I could find their contact info. I then wrote to Ms. Morris, and was surprised when I got a response from Mr. Bolcom telling me that his wife was on vacation, and that the songs were by Leiber & Stoller, and that I should write to them and tell them that Bill Bolcom said it was okay for me to have them. And then he gave me their address and fax number.

So I did just that and didn’t hear anything back for a couple of months. And then, when I had forgotten about it completely, a package came in the mail with photocopies of hand-written music and a note from their secretary apologizing for the delay, but that Mr. Stoller (or Leiber – I can’t remember which) had been out of the country and she had to wait for him to come back to get his permission.

The song that I was particularly anxious to have was a piece called “Humphrey Bogart,” which is the only one of the packet that I’ve performed so far. I told Mr. Bolcom and Ms. Morris that the recording of that song gave me the idea for my cabaret show about movies and movie stars (that and Christopher Berg’s “Poem,” which begins with the line “Lana Turner has collapsed”). As a result, I had the beginnings of the show “Oh, to be a movie star!”, which Ryan Cappleman and I performed together in Milwaukee as the inaugural show of our duo, MezzoPiano.

I thanked them for that and for all the wonderful music they have introduced or re-introduced in their 40+ year career. I’m hoping to be in touch with them and … maybe make a road trip to Ann Arbor to coach with them?