A native of Canada, having been born and raised in Regina, Saskatchewan, composer Donald Bohlen has lived most of his adult life in the United States.
Demonstrating precocity and devotion to piano study, at age thirteen he was featured as soloist with the Regina Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #3 in C Minor. He spent that summer at the Banff School of Fine Arts in master classes with Jacques Jolas and returned for an additional summer session six years later in master classes with Bela Boszormenyi-Nagy. This second summer of study there culminated with Bohlen being featured as soloist in a performance of Mozart’s Concerto in C minor, K. 491.
During his apprentice years at the Regina Conservatory of Music, Bohlen studied piano with Dorothy Williamina Bee, and concluded his studies with the successful premieres of the young composer’s Variations for Solo Piano and his first three movement piano concerto.
Bohlen was subsequently awarded the Coronation Music Prize celebrating the ascent to the throne of Queen Elizabeth II. This award enabled him to be presented as both solo recitalist and concerto performer.
After leaving Canada, he enrolled in the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, completing undergraduate degrees in both piano and composition, studying with pianist Jack Radunsky and composer Walter Aschaffenburg. Bohlen’s matriculation from Oberlin culminated with an appearance as soloist in the premiere of his second concerto, scored for piano and chamber orchestra, written for his graduation concert.
Sponsorship from the Canada Council for the Arts enabled Bohlen to study at Princeton University where he completed the Master of Fine Arts degree in Composition under the tutelage of Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt. Formal study continued at the University of Michigan, where he was awarded the Doctor of Music Arts in Composition. His composition studies there were with Ross Lee Finney and Leslie Bassett, and his piano studies were with Gyorgy Sandor.
Pursuing an avid interest in theater and music for the theater, Bohlen undertook a cognate study in playwrighting at the University of Michigan. This study concluded with his receiving an Avery Hopwood Award for four one-act plays submitted in competition.
Continuing his dedication to the performance of new music, Bohlen was deeply involved in the annual “Once Festivals” in Ann Arbor. As both solo pianist and chamber music performer, Bohlen was active in the premiere performance of experimental new music in “Once Festival” concerts featuring works by Robert Ashley, Luciano Berio, George Cacioppo, John Cage, Gordon Mumma, and Roger Reynolds.
In response to a 2003 compendium release, Music from the Once Festival (New World Records), Bohlen’s premiere of George Cacioppo’s three movement Pianopieces was reviewed in the November 2003 Paris Transatlantic Magazine as follows: “The Pianopieces demonstrate – Cacioppo’s musical evolution – while Pianopiece I [and III are] conventionally notated, the score of Cassiopeia is a stunningly beautiful graphic score – charting various routes through the material – [all demonstrably] the work of the same composer, as Donald Bohlen’s superb performance makes clear.”
Bohlen’s completion of studies at the University of Michigan was followed by a faculty appointment at Central Missouri State University, where he taught both composition and piano. His Missouri years brought forth music for film as well as collaboration with Robert C. Jones (poet-librettist) and Richard Monson (artist-film maker) that produced a successfully presented one-act multi-media opera, Ismene, based on the Oedipus legend. In addition to several successful presentations in Missouri, the opera enjoyed a well-received performance at a Music Teachers National Association Convention at the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music.
During his tenure at CMSU, Bohlen co-chaired, along with Jones and Monson, the presentation of seven successive years of “Sight-Sound Festivals.” These fine and performing arts festivals became the vehicle for interdisciplinary visits to the campus of major international figures, including renowned anthropologist Richard Leakey.
Before leaving Missouri to begin his appointment in New York, he was featured as soloist in a performance of Bartok’s Piano Concerto #1 and conducted a presentation of L’Histoire du Soldat in a multi-media festival dedicated to the music and writings of Stravinski.
Bohlen’s years as Chair of Composition at the School of Music, State University of New York at Fredonia were marked by his establishment of performance venues for new music, as well as maintaining productivity as a composer.
As Chair of Music Composition and Professor at the School of Music, State University of New York at Fredonia, Bohlen established a nationally recognized program for the training of composers. In private instruction and seminars, he created a provocative environment that assisted apprentices in their musical growth while constantly broadening both their understanding of music as well as their intellectual awareness. In recognition of his outstanding work with students, he was awarded the President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2003.
As a vehicle for compositional pedagogy, Bohlen founded the student-administrated ETHOS New Music Society, and for thirty years acted as guiding force and faculty advisor in the Society’s presentation of new music on the SUNY Fredonia campus. Festivals, master classes and visits by internationally recognized composers, scholars, and performers enriched the ETHOS concerts of regularly presented music by both the apprentice composers who were members of the group and Fredonia School of Music faculty.
As composer, pedagogue, and guest lecturer, Bohlen has been constantly active building an environment in which new music might flourish. In piano works, chamber music, accompanied and a cappella choral works, and music for solo voice, he has crafted works that capture the imagination, are memorable for their investigation of grammatical elements and musical syntax, and that earn devoted, quality performances from both vocal and instrumental musicians, including faculty from various institutions and professional performers.
Current compositional output finds Bohlen investigating new discoveries in the nature of human perception of time and the nature of human memory as it applies to understanding shape and form in contemporary music. These investigations in Bohlen’s work are balanced by a deep kinship with the accumulated accomplishment of past composers regarding the basic functioning of both grammatical and syntactical elements. Issues of lyrically memorable line, harmonic progression, contrapuntal texture and the effect of both timbre and silence on the perception of shape are boldly investigated and are deeply associated with a variety of source materials, including Western European art music, jazz, selected ethno-musics, and specific current trends in popular music as they impact perception and ease of memorability.
Bringing closure to his faculty responsibilities as a teacher-mentor to generations of composers has allowed Bohlen to pursue not only his own composition with increased intensity but also his interests in cognitive neuroscience and the relationship of this discipline to human perception as it specifically relates to music composition and associated compositional pedagogy.
ETHOS Presents...The Music of Donald Bohlen – An Evening of Chamber Music, in honor of the composer’s 75th birthday
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
8 p.m., Rosch Recital Hall on the SUNY Fredonia campus
Songs and Doubles (Angela Haas, soprano; Andrew Seigal, clarinet; Anne Kissel, piano)
Prologue, Arioso and Variants (Janet Sung, violin)
Exordium, Book 1 (Sean Duggan, piano)
Copyright © 2008 Donald Bohlen.
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