William Bolcom at the Mansion at Strathmore

Friday, February 27, 2009; 5:55 PM

William Bolcom can be a serious and intense composer of vocal music. Thank goodness he was neither at the Mansion at Strathmore on Thursday night, because when Bolcom has fun, the audience has an absolutely marvelous time.

The program was called "Swinging on a Star," but there were two stars: Bolcom and his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, who has performed with him for a remarkable 35 years. The music, from the 1890s to the 1930s, charmingly mixed the familiar and the odd. In the former category were such standards as "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries" and "Let's Face the Music and Dance." In the latter were, among others, Cole Porter's "Tale of the Oyster," in which an adventurous bivalve is captured, eaten, then returned home through (ahem) regurgitation; and Harold Rome's "Nobody Makes a Pass at Me," a hilarious look at advertising saturation, circa 1937.

Morris's voice cracks occasionally and retains only hints of its former duskiness, but her vocal and physical expressiveness is enchanting, and she showed great flair for the dramatic in Jay Gorney and Yip Harburg's "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" Her nuanced rendition of Bolcom's own cabaret-style "Black Max" was another highlight.

As soloist, Bolcom showed his ragtime-pianist roots in bang-up renditions of Scott Joplin's "Wall Street Rag" and Eubie Blake's "Capricious Harlem." And two encores were the ultimate delights for the capacity crowd. One was Bolcom's silly paean to rubber-chicken-and-canned-pear luncheons, "Lime Jello Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise." The other had Morris channeling Lotte Lenya channeling Julie Andrews. You wouldn't believe what a few of her favorite things were. But you can believe that Bolcom and Morris were the audience's.

-- Mark J. Estren

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