William Bolcomb, Piano and Joan Morris, Mezzo-Soprano January 20, 2008
By Glen Creason
If you are laboring under the illusion that everything new is better or that music tweaked by technology is progress then you should have been at the Performing Arts Center on Sunday afternoon. There, a lucky few were treated to an edifying, illuminating and exhilarating concert by the wondrous mezzo soprano Joan Morris and her toweringly talented pianist-hubby William Bolcomb. Called “champions of the American popular vocal literature” this duo presents with little pomp a dazzling array of musical beauties drawn from a very deep well of musical scholarship and stage experience. Since the early 70’s this team has taken forgotten genres and songs and made them shine again. It’s like they take you up in the attic of our musical history and open an old trunk full of precious mementos. They blow the dust off the lovely jewels, put their own great skills to the task and make the listener fully understand why people fell in love with these songs when they were new. This is certainly no cruise ship re-hash of the warhorses of American popular song but a meticulously chosen selection of different emotions, intentions and musical creations ranging from the 1890’s music hall to the enduring sweetness of a Lennon and McCartney tune from the late 60’s. Over the years and with twenty-three albums these two great artists have breathed lovely life into great songs from the turn of the century, from forgotten ragtime, from cabaret and popular song from throughout the twentieth century. William Bolcomb and Joan Morris celebrate our finest songwriters including Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart, Hubie Blake, Jerome Kern, Noel Coward, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Harry Warren, Lieber and Stoller and many more by singing their wonderful songs with passion and panache.
You could literally write a book, indeed an encyclopedia on what Maestro Bolcomb and La Morris know about popular songs but their musical skills match the lofty choices they put forward in the show. When the lady sang Paul Dresser’s sentimental “On the Banks of the Wabash” or another cautionary tale from the nineteenth century “After the Ball” they didn’t sound dated or corny but touched the heart just as they did for folks in the Victorian era. When she sweetly caressed “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Glad to Be Unhappy,” “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” or Eubie Blake’s greatly underrated “You’re Lucky to Me” you just got lost in the lyrics. Of course, from that trunk in America’s attic they brought forth material that was delightful yet maybe not really serious. The quirky and cute top of the 1900 pops “the Bird on Nelly’s hat” opened the show and Cole Porter’s hilarious “The Tale of an Oyster” offered spice to the more familiar pieces in the repertoire.
The second half of the show unveiled some other surprises including the whimsical “A Bar on the Piccola Marina” by Noel Coward, Bolcomb and Arnold Weinstein’s terrific cabaret song “At the Last Lousy Moments of Love” and the couples own wedding present to each other “Lime Jell-O, Marshmallow, Cottage Cheese Surprise.” These charmed along with really beautiful renditions of classics like “Our Love in Here to Stay,” “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” the truly sublime “Always” and a romp through Lieber and Stoller’s “Black Denim Trousers” that roared like the motorcycle in the story. As if the superb singing wasn’t enough, William Bolcomb treated us to two marvelous piano solos including the Brazilian composer Nazareth’s Tango and the mesmerizing “Graceful Ghost,” a ragtime composition of great import. The small crowd at the Center stood and gave all they had at the conclusion of this excellent afternoon of songs, bidding the two out for three encores including a very sweet “When I’m 64” sounding even better than when I first heard it in my twentieth year.