The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: University of Wisconsin-Madison and Van Cliburn prize-winning pianist Christopher Taylor talks about the music of American composer William Bolcom, whose Piano Quintet No. 2 he will give the world premiere of this week.

March 20, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

It has been a busy time for University of Wisconsin-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor, who won a bronze medal at the 1993 Van Cliburn competition.

Just last Friday night, Taylor (below) turned in an extraordinary performance of the rarely heard Piano Concerto No. 4 by John Field, a piece he learned especially for the concert with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

This week, he is working on the world premiere of American composer William Bolcom’s Piano Quintet No. 2. The big public event and official premiere is this Saturday night at 8 p.m. in the Wisconsin Union Theater, where Taylor and the UW’s Pro Arte String Quartet (below is a photo by Rick Langer) will perform a FREE and PUBLIC concert that features Mozart, Webern and Darius Milhaud (who was Bolcom’s teacher) as well as Bolcom.

The public can also hear Bolcom’s new Piano Quintet No. 2 at an OPEN REHEARSAL with the composer on Thursday morning from 9 a.m. to noon in Mills Hall on the UW campus; and then in person or via Wisconsin Public Radio on Sunday when it is performed for a second time from 12:30 to 2 p.m. on “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen Museum of Art” (below).

Bolcom (below) will be in Madison this week to attend the rehearsal and premieres and to give talks. For more information about Bolcom’s work and other events, including free lectures by the New York Times senior music critic Anthony Tommasini (below), visit:

On this historic occasion – part of the season-long centennial celebration of the Pro Arte Quartet – Taylor (below) agreed to an email interview about Bolcom:

What music of William Bolcom – rags, etudes, chamber music — have you played before and what do you think of his music in general?

I’ve played perhaps a dozen of his rags, including the “Garden of Eden” and the “Ghost” Rags, the 12 New Piano Etudes (which I have recorded), the piano concerto, the wind sextet and the first cello sonata.

The first of these works to enter my awareness was the “Garden of Eden,” which I heard performed when I was 8 years old; ever since then, I’ve had great affection for Bolcom’s music.

What characteristics distinguish Bolcom’s music and what attracts you to it? And how would you place Bolcom (below) in the history of modern and contemporary American classical music?

The association with ragtime remains central in my mind, although his music is quite diverse and not many ragtime elements can be found in this latest piano quintet, for instance.

In general his compositions combine technically impeccable construction and a solid awareness of the diverse strands of modern music history, with a certain tunefulness and audience accessibility.

Like many contemporary American composers, he is not readily lumped in with any particular “ism,” but demonstrates admirable flexibility and variety in his output.

Can you tell us about the Piano Quintet No. 2, which you will give the world premiere of this Saturday and Sunday with the Pro Arte String Quartet, and then later record? What it is like for you to play and for the audience to hear? Is it technically challenging? Musically challenging? Accessible to the general public?

Since Bolcom is himself an excellent pianist, his music always sits well under the hands.  The piano part for this quintet is not as intensely difficult as he initially threatened while making his first sketches, but it certainly has its moments; it shows off the instrument’s strengths admirably while at the same time interacting with the strings in a considerate fashion.

The harmonic language is largely atonal, but references to tonality show up periodically in a way that feels surprisingly natural.  Listeners who are unused to a little dissonance may be initially turned off, but I think most concert-goers nowadays won’t have too much trouble getting past that issue.

The reward for doing so is a very pleasant aesthetic experience: dramatic, eloquent, well-proportioned (not hugely long either) and directly expressive.

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