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The First Couple for bringing the history and flavor of American song to life enthralled a near-capacity audience in the intimate Charlie and Mary Babcock Hall, in the new wing of Reynolda House, on February 12. Since 1973, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris and composer/pianist William Bolcom have toured with entertaining, imaginative and informative programs that survey the rich repertory of American songs from the late 19th century through the 20th century's giants, such as the Gershwins, Eubie Blake, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin. In these recitals and his many compositions, Bolcom has, according to Steven Johnson, writing in New Grove II, "sought to erase the boundaries between popular and serious music."
Bolcom and Morris manage to convey a large amount of material covering a wide range styles and periods. Despite the passage of time, hardly any allowance was needed for Morris' firm mezzo-soprano voice, which sounded fresher than ever. She has few if any equals in the art of combining nuances of vocal color, timing, and body language to put across a song. Well-known hit songs are given with their introductions – in opera, we'd call these "recitatives." Few pianists can play the piano parts with such freedom and mastery of style as Bolcom commands. He thanked the miracle of modern medicine, after a series of five hand operations that allowed him to maintain his phenomenal dexterity.
With Valentine's Day looming near, the theme of the Reynolda House concert was "Songs of Love Lost and Love Found." The selections ranged from the Gay Nineties – Joe Howard's "I wonder who is kissing her now?" – through the late 20th century, with the gritty "At the last lousy moment of Love," from Cabaret Songs by Bolcom/Weinstein. There were three fine songs from the joint pens of George and Ira Gershwin – "Someone to watch over me," from Oh, Kay (1926), "Our love is here to stay" (1938), and, from the movie Shall We Dance? (1937), "They all laughed." Other classics included "You're the cream in my coffee," by Sylva, Brown and Henderson, "My funny Valentine," by Rodgers and Hart, and "Makin' Whoopee," by Donaldson and Kahn.
The piano lid was fully raised for two solo selections by Bolcom. After playing contrasting examples of ragtime piano and Harlem stride, he lit into the ivories with James P. Johnson's "Mule Walk" (1914-17). Reminiscing about the late Arthur Miller, Bolcom recalled playing and mouthing the words from his operatic setting of A View from the Bridge for the playwright, after which Miller regaled the couple with stories for some three hours. The duo will always remember him as a storyteller. In his memory, Bolcom played a rag, "Graceful Ghost," he had composed to mark his own father's passing. Its subtle bittersweet spirit was apt.
Besides their consummate performances of songs, the couple's first- or sometimes second-hand stories about the composers or incidents connected with the compositions are enthralling. Before Bolcom and Morris were married, in 1975, they were at Eubie Blake's house, and Bolcom played a Blake waltz as the octogenarian turned on all his charm while dancing with Morris, making Bolcom a little jealous. Blake told him, "You gotta marry that girl!" Then, at their wedding reception, Blake sat down at the piano and played a wild ragtime version of Mendelssohn's "Wedding March." A highlight of the first half of the concert was Morris' vivid singing of "I'm craving for that kind of love," from Shuffle Along (1922) by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. The song was a showstopper in a musical that broke down racial barriers by portraying a serious love affair between two black characters, in contrast to the previous tradition of low comedy. The song blends classical vocalism with syncopation with perhaps a touch of "blues shout."
Audience enthusiasm was generously rewarded with three encores. Donaldson and Kahn's "Carolina in the morning" was followed by Irving Berlin's "I'll always be loving you," and the pièce de résistance of any Bolcom and Morris concert, the inspired bit of comedy known as "Lime Jello Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise." Morris is inimitable as the "cock-eyed" leader of a woman's club with certain social pretensions. What a treat!