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Thread: Bolcom's "Prometheus"

  1. #1
    Senior Member Lunasong's Avatar
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    Default Bolcom's "Prometheus"

    Our chorus began rehearsal on the above contemporary piece based on a poem by Lord Byron, and composed by William Bolcom as commissioned by a consortium of 13 orchestras, foundations, and individuals. We will be the second group to perform the piece, scheduled for mid-November. I'll use this thread to track our progress.
    At last week's rehearsal, we were advised that we will be working on parts separately for quite awhile, as our director believes it is better to learn each of our parts as a separate musical thread than to, at this point, try to figure out how they fit together.

    Below is the program note by the composer.


    PROMETHEUS is scored for two flutes (second takes piccolo), two oboes (second takes English horn), two B-flat clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns in F, three trumpets in C, two trombones and bass trombone, tuba, celesta, timpani, four percussionists, SATB chorus, solo piano and strings.

    It is undeniable that our century and millennium have not gotten off to an auspicious start, with Sept. 11, 2001, our worldwide economic crisis, and all the ills the 20th century has foisted on the 21st. The ancient legend of Prometheus is a perfect metaphor for our time; in it the god is chained to a rock with a huge bird gnawing at his vitals, which are eternally renewed and eternally destroyed each day.

    To much of the rest of the world the West is Prometheus, whose fire has fueled the technological expansion of the last 500 years – electricity, steam, oil, the atom, and the computer. The sense of power we’ve all gained thereby has simultaneously pulled us away from religion, and freed of its restraint, we in the West have brought ourselves to a level of technical sophistication unknown to any other era. We’ve wedged our way into almost-divine capability, unlike Prometheus who, as a god, was born with it – but at a price. We are now all Prometheus, chained to our rock of technological dependency; there is no question that our unprecedented advance has given the world enormous benefits we have no desire of relinquishing – nor should we – but we are enjoined to see the dark side of this bounty.

    George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824) is, with Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Blake, among the first poets to speak of the new interest in science of his era. His poem, Prometheus, coming as it does from the early industrial revolution, examines the antipodes we are haplessly hurled between constantly as well as the West’s altruism that has fueled so much of the modern world’s predicament. When I was requested to write the present work for the same forces as Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, I felt the piano part would be ideal in portraying Prometheus’s eternal agony; my Prometheus is perhaps the antithesis of the joyous mood of the Beethoven (you will hear tonight) but is not devoid of hope, particularly if it points us to begin to understand our situation. This piece is dedicated to that hope.

    The opening piano solo evoking Prometheus’s eternal struggle against his chains precedes the first stanza of Byron’s poem, in a contoured, unpitched recitation by the chorus with the piano. This is followed by an apocalyptic fanfare from the orchestra and the first statement, in falling brass triads, of the central motive of the piece; the piano returns, gently this time, with the rest of the orchestra, moving toward a climax. The subsequent solo piano passage depicting the giant bird’s attacks points toward the first movement’s quiet closing.

    Movement II, marked in the score “lively; like sparks,” involves for the first time the entire ensemble of piano, chorus, and orchestra; in it Prometheus’s inescapable fate is shown. A short piano interlude derived from the work’s opening ensues, followed by the chorus and orchestra lamenting both Prometheus’s fate and Zeus’s regretful meting of his dire punishment by lightning bolts, portrayed by the piano. The movement ends on a tragic note, employing the earlier triadic motive in a quiet ending, which flows attacca into the final section.

    The chorus, alone for the first time, intones “Thy Godlike crime was to be kind,” in antiphony with the brass. Here, again with piano and the rest of the orchestra, follows the meditation at the core of the poem: “Like thee, Man is in part divine, / A troubled stream from a pure source.” After the strife of the rest of Prometheus comes a peace derived from greater understanding that I feel we will someday acquire, and for which I pray fervently.


    William Bolcom
    August 25, revised October 2, 2010
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    Senior Member Ukko's Avatar
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    Thanks for this post; interesting. Mr. Bolcom is an accomplished composer/pianist. I have a couple recordings of his rags, but he has pretty much done it all. He has a well developed sense of humor, which is always a recommendation.
    Experience teaches you to recognize a mistake when you've made it again.
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    Senior Member Lunasong's Avatar
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    Last night's rehearsal produced a little more hope than last week's, in which we may have covered a more difficult passage (beginning of Movement II), what with vocal leaps of an octave and a half step (really!). We were given a rehearsal CD but instructed not to listen to it more than a couple times, as our director does not want us imitating that group's interpretation. The score has great thundering crashes of low register piano chords that are so indeterminate, in many places it sounds as if the pianist is pounding his forearm into the keys. After the initial choral spoken verse, there is a grand brass entrance that is actually my favorite part of the piece.

    We will continue to learn our parts in sectionals as the vocal pitches work against each other as often as they work with each other. It is a real strange piece. As our director stated last night - what do you expect for a poem about a guy chained to a rock with his innards being eaten daily by vultures? A bit of that torture is reflected in the tonal dissonances.
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    Senior Member Lunasong's Avatar
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    Tonight's rehearsal was spent 1/2 in sectionals, and 1/2 in ensemble. This was our first time singing with all four parts (there are only a few sections where the parts are further subdivided). The rehearsal strategy must be working because we are getting the pitches correct.

    Our exemplary rehearsal pianist has prepared, and distributed tonight, a rehearsal CD with each part broken out separately for private practice, plus all parts together. I have not yet listened but hope this will be a useful aid.

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    Senior Member Lunasong's Avatar
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    Last night again we spent rehearsal 1/2 in sectionals, 1/2 in ensemble. There are many tri-tone intervals in this piece, also deceptive intervals which at first read seem more difficult than they are. Why would a composer write E-flat to C-sharp, which is really a whole step? F-sharp to E-flat, which is more comfortably thought (and visualized) as a minor third to D-sharp? In looking at the solo piano part and orchestra cues also written on our scores, there are accidental sharps and flats written in the same runs and chords. Just curious what the insight is on this, as I've not encountered it before. I have not studied music at conservatory.

    Most of the ensemble rehearsal was devoted to the recitation. I confess I did not listen to the rehearsal CD (distributed last week) for this section prior to rehearsal. I should have. It will be a valuable aid not only to the technical aspects of this section, but the dramatic ones as well.
    Last edited by Lunasong; Sep-28-2011 at 15:44.

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    Senior Member Lunasong's Avatar
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    No more sectionals! I practiced with the rehearsal CD during the week and was well prepared for rehearsal. We covered the recitative and the difficult beginning of Mvt II. We practiced our dissonant vocal blends by singing each chord in arpeggio. Interesting technique, but it worked.

    No further insight to the question asked above. I asked the choral director and he said something about "enharmonic equivalents" and "what the composer is doing with the chords." I wondered if it is difficult for the pianist to switch back and forth between flats and sharps in the same phrase or chordal structure so I picked out a section at home. The mental part wasn't as hard as I thought; maybe this is just a singer's problem. Whilst I was picking, my cat walked across the keyboard and I missed some clef changes, but I don't know if the casual listener would have noticed

    A sample of the solo piano part for this piece:


    My cat:
    Last edited by Lunasong; Oct-05-2011 at 19:08. Reason: added pics

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    Senior Member Lunasong's Avatar
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    ...so sad that even after posting a pic of my cute kitty, no one will answer my music theory question

    Last night's rehearsal concentrated on Mvt III. We went through the whole movement singing "One and two and tee and" and, as all the parts are rhythmically in unison (but not this even!), this really helped. There's one chord in this section where Sop are on C nat, Alto on D flat, Tenor on A, and Bass on B flat, and we hold this for 2-1/2 measures! Just a typical example of dissonance.

    We then put the words in, and also covered the other 2 movements. This is the first time we were able to review all three movements in rehearsal.

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    Senior Member Lunasong's Avatar
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    We spent the entire rehearsal last night with either tuning exercises or practicing transitions between phrases. Our director was very intent on having each section tune on the vowel. He stated that in this piece it is extremely important that each section be perfectly in tune with itself (I'm sure because the piece itself is so dissonant that we want to make sure we don't make it any worse). This was definitely the most technically-oriented rehearsal we've had so far and it was fascinating to listen to my director's explanations why we were doing certain exercises or vowel pronunciations.

    It was fun to observe his delight when, after requesting the arpeggio for starting notes in one section, it was a major chord instead of some weird assemblage of random-sounding notes.

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    Senior Member Lunasong's Avatar
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    More of the same as last week. This was the last rehearsal before maestro joins us next week. I hope he approves of what we are doing and doesn't ask us to change too much.

    The name of the program for which we are singing is "Promethean Exploits." Here is the program:
    BEETHOVEN Prometheus Overture
    BOLCOM Prometheus
    *interval*
    LISZT Prometheus Symphonic Poem
    BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 8

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    Senior Member Lunasong's Avatar
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    Rehearsal with Maestro last night. Luckily, we have been well-prepared and not too many changes were asked, just enhancements to what we are already doing. This is a tribute to our choral director. We went through the entire piece twice; back-to-front, then front-to-back.

    As advised, I hadn't listened to the CD we were handed the first night in quite awhile. I'm listening now. Our recitation (Mvt I) is very different, much more "spooky tale told around the campfire" style than the exaggerated intonation of the recorded group. Mvt II is very dramatic; perhaps we haven't yet captured the entire meaning of this yet in our interpretation. Maestro did advise us last night to think more about the meaning of our words as we have a tendency to concentrate on the syllable instead of the entire phrase.
    Mvt III is probably where our interpretation is closest to the CD. I have been worried about holding pitch in an a capella section at the beginning, but in listening to the CD there is a brief bit of orchestration that I hope will help us from going flat, as has been our tendency!


    Prometheus at Rockefeller Center, Paul Manship, sculptor

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    Senior Member Lunasong's Avatar
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    A bonus post! The insightful review below helped me further understand 'Prometheus.' Mr. Biegel is, of course, the solo pianist for our performance in two weeks. Commissioning your own work and lining up nine orchestras to perform it over the next few years is a gutsy gig.

    from the piece's Facebook page:
    For the 2010-11-12 seasons, several orchestras with chorus have co-commissioned William Bolcom's composition titled, 'Prometheus'. It is scored for solo piano, orchestra and chorus, written for pianist Jeffrey Biegel. Mr. Biegel created the project and assembled the consortium to bring this new work into the repertoire.

    A review from the LA Times on the work's premiere:
    (Jeffery) Biegel’s ambition here was considerable. Money is tight these days, so he got nine institutions (among them the Detroit Symphony, the Calgary Philharmonic and the University of Kentucky) to sign on. Four private donors were approached for the underwriting. It is a miracle that Biegel, who engineered everything himself and is technologically savvy, didn’t develop carpal tunnel syndrome from all the e-mailing this project must have entailed.

    Ironically, it is just such technology that Bolcom’s “Prometheus” cautions against. In his program note, the composer called the Greek god who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mortals the perfect metaphor for our time. The Greeks understood that this technology was both of great use and destructive, and that maybe it was more than humans can handle.

    Prometheus was punished by being bound to a boulder, an eagle daily devouring his liver. “We are all now Prometheus chained to our rock of technological dependence,” Bolcom writes. His is a dark, compelling piece.

    The piano is Prometheus, and Biegel began rattling his chains with violent attacks at the lower range of the piano. A grim brass fanfare showed the official power of opposing forces.

    Byron tackled technology’s two sides in the early 19th century, during the rise of science and the dawn of the Industrial Age. The chorus begins by declaiming the poem in Sprechstimme (spoken to rhythms) much as Schoenberg did in “Ode to Napoleon” when he set Byron’s poem for a speaker as a parable about Hitler’s Promethean ambitions.

    Bolcom is famed for his stylistic versatility, and “Prometheus,” which lasts 22 minutes, contains not just one kind of music, although it isn’t wildly eclectic either. Byron’s intricate poem doesn’t seek easy solutions and Bolcom’s music remains dedicated to its complexity of thought and structure.

    The lyrical impulse in “Prometheus” is progressive, and actual singing, most of it homophonic, arrives gradually in the choral part. The piano never loses its sinew or terrible resilience. But Bolcom finds inspiration at the end in the absolute power of nature and the radiance of the human spirit. A listener is left in a glow but with much unresolved. Humanity’s work gets harder all the time.
    http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/cult...-symphony.html

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    Senior Member Lunasong's Avatar
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    Last night's rehearsal consisted of extensive tuning exercises before we turned our attention to Mvt III. We concentrated on the a cappela section at the beginning, where I mentioned in a previous post the chorus has had a tendency to go flat. Our director said that choirs go flat for three reasons.
    1. They are singing a phrase with ascending pitches.
    2. They are singing a phrase with descending pitches.
    3. They are singing a phrase where the pitch does not change.

    ...no win here...

    In this particular section (which is quite serene) the sopranos are jumping up a fifth, then descending; the altos are descending a -3rd and then holding pitch; the tenors hold pitch; and the basses jump down a fifth and then ascend.

    We then quickly reviewed Mvts II and I.

    Next week we have 3 rehearsals with the orchestra and then 2 performances! Did I mention this piece is starting to grow on me?

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    Senior Member Lunasong's Avatar
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    We've had three nights' rehearsal with the orchestra and solo pianist now on stage at venue, and it really is sounding quite good. On his radio show yesterday, Maestro said that the piano usage is reminiscent of Liszt, and that it's a colorful use of orchestra. He stated the chorus has an interesting task as it moves from spoken word to thorny, harsh, dissonant chords, and finishes with lush, full chords.

    The orchestra is promoting this concert rather heavily to "young professionals," giving them a special ticket price which includes an after-party with drinks, food, and swag.

    Here's a excerpt from a promo article written for the concert. It highlights Bolcom's vision of the "rock, chain, and vulture" of technology.

    ...But I can’t stop thinking about Bolcom’s Prometheus.

    Several friends and colleagues with whom I spoke thought that, given Bolcom’s perception of the inherent evil of technology and their massive impact on it, perhaps Steve Jobs or Bill Gates might be better candidates for a modern-day Prometheus than merely you or me.

    Then, I watched the World Series.

    Watching the people in the stands behind home plate, I was appalled to see so many, who had paid exorbitant sums to watch the games in person, doing anything but. They had their heads down, rapt with the process of reading and responding to text messages on their smart phones. That’s when it hit me. Bolcom is right: we, you and I, are Prometheus today. Chained not to a rock, but to our smart phones, iPods, iPads, eBook readers, laptops, and ultimately the Internet.

    And that bird that daily gnaws at our guts and reduces our humanity in the process is technology.

    In our rush to be at the forefront of this new and exciting era in communications, we have failed to see the forests for the trees. We use communication devices, but we do not communicate. The media has become the message. We tend to use smart phones to do everything but make phone calls. We passively put pictures on an electronic wall and messages about where we are and what we have been doing. When we do talk (read: text), we speak in pimply hyperbolae and employ acronyms (e.g., OMG) rather than real words.

    Habit? Sure. Slavery? Perhaps, just perhaps….

    Here’s a definition of real communication. Four men who lived in different countries and different eras wrote messages to us(ed note: Byron, Beethoven, Bolcom, Liszt), one with words, and three with musical notes. We go to a place where, for the time we are there, no cell phones or other electronic devices are allowed. And reading those words and notes written on paper, upwards of 200 musicians and vocalists communicate the messages those four men bequeathed to us. In little more than one hour and twenty minutes, we – uninterrupted by the cares of our modern world – listen to these men speak to us, communicate with us, on the most basic, visceral, emotional level possible.

    And feel the chains that bind us to whatever personal rock we occupy loosen and fall away.


    So wish me luck tonight. I've been nursing a cold for the last few days and woke up this AM with no voice. I'm drinking tea with honey. Besides the two concerts, I also have a guitar/vocal solo gig tomorrow afternoon. So it's a really bad time to lose my voice.

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    Senior Member Lunasong's Avatar
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    Both performances were terrific. I think we did a good job of interpreting the composer's intention. I had a listen to the radio broadcast of one of the performances yesterday and was impressed with the overall sound. So often when one is working on his own part he loses the knowledge of the total piece and how everything sounds together
    The entire concert will be webcast on Feb 4 and I'll drop a reminder note in this thread for that, but until then, thank you for reading my rehearsal diary and following along as we rehearsed a regional premiere performance of a new composition, Bolcom's Prometheus.

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    Thumbs up Is the rehearsal CD commercially available?

    I found your rehearsal diary today. Great story!

    We have a May performance of this in Detroit. Is the rehearsal CD commercially available? I cannot find anything for it (or a recording itself) on the web.

    Who did you perform it with, and where will it be broadcast from? (if you can tell)

    Thanks much
    Marius in Michigan



    Quote Originally Posted by Lunasong View Post
    No more sectionals! I practiced with the rehearsal CD during the week and was well prepared for rehearsal. We covered the recitative and the difficult beginning of Mvt II. We practiced our dissonant vocal blends by singing each chord in arpeggio. Interesting technique, but it worked.

    No further insight to the question asked above. I asked the choral director and he said something about "enharmonic equivalents" and "what the composer is doing with the chords." I wondered if it is difficult for the pianist to switch back and forth between flats and sharps in the same phrase or chordal structure so I picked out a section at home. The mental part wasn't as hard as I thought; maybe this is just a singer's problem. Whilst I was picking, my cat walked across the keyboard and I missed some clef changes, but I don't know if the casual listener would have noticed

    A sample of the solo piano part for this piece:


    My cat:

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