James Lee III
Chuphshah! Harriet's Drive to Canaan (2010-2011)
Concerto in F (1896)
Andante con moto
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano
Symphony No. 3 (1935)
Lento; Allegro moderato
Adagio ma non troppo; Allegro vivace; Tempo come prima
By Tim Munro
Three composers, emerging from different backgrounds, speaking with distinct musical languages. For all three, the communication of emotion is central.
“My music,” writes James Lee III, should communicate to listeners “in such a way that they are deeply moved and enriched because of what they had just heard.”
“I try,” wrote Sergei Rachmaninoff, “to say simply and directly what is in my heart. If there is love there, or bitterness, or sadness, or religion, these moods become a part of my music.”
“Music,” wrote George Gershwin, “sets up a certain vibration which results in a physical reaction. I like to think of music as an emotional science.” Three composers, singing directly from one heart to another.
Chuphshah! Harriet's Drive to Cannan
James Lee III
Born 1975, St. Joesph, MI
“I compose music to reach to the inner soul of the listener,” writes composer James Lee III, “that elevates them regardless of race or religious affiliation.”
For Lee, raised in the Seventh Day Adventist church, music and faith are closely intertwined. Many works have Hebrew names and are inspired by biblical readings, particularly from the apocalyptic visions in the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation.
His works also draws on aspects of the Black American experience. A Different Soldier’s Tale celebrates his grandfather’s time as a corporal during World War II. Hold On, America, Hold On! tells stories of adversity from the Tulsa Massacre to recent events.
Chuphshah! Harriet’s Drive to Canaan explores aspects of the life of Harriet Tubman. “The word ‘Chuphshah’,” writes Lee, “is the biblical Hebrew word for freedom. Specifically, it is freedom from slavery. Canaan refers to the northern free states of America or even as far north as Canada that would have been the ‘promised land’ for the slaves.”
Chuphshah opens with furtive gestures, as Tubman escapes to freedom. After her escape, Lee explores “the emotions that she may have felt. The sadness and longing that prompted her to return to dangerous slave territory in pursuit of family members and other slaves.” Throughout the piece, Tubman is represented by the English horn.
Chuphshah quotes songs and spirituals of the time. These include “Follow the drinkin’ gourd,” “Let my people go,” “I Wish I was in Dixie’s Land,” and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” At times these melodies struggle: “As the American Civil War continues to be bitterly fought,” writes Lee, “the music portrays an imagined battle in the war.”
Near the end of Chuphshah, violins and oboe sing the final line of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” with the words, “His truth is marching on.” Chuphshah concludes with an evocation of a military funeral for Tubman, celebrating a life of heroism, bravery, and action.
First performance: September 23, 2011, by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop conducting First SLSO performance: This weekend's concerts Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, strings Approximate duration: 12 minutes
Concerto in F
Born September 26, 1898, Brooklyn, New York
Died July 11, 1937, Los Angeles, California
At 25, George Gershwin was world-famous. Over the course of a decade he had ascended from Tin Pan Alley song-hawker to composer of hit songs and Broadway shows, his face gracing the cover of Time Magazine.
I Programar, Gershwin wrote and performed Rhapsody in Blue, his first work with orchestra. The piece fast became a sensation, traveling coast to coast and provoking furious debates in the classical world.
Rhapsody’s notoriety led to a new commission from the New York Symphony. The request: a full-scale piano concerto. “Many persons thought the Rhapsody was only a happy accident,” wrote Gershwin. A new concerto would “show them that there was plenty more where that had come from.”
The Piano Concerto hums with the teeming activity of a city “Most of my ideas arise from people,” Gershwin said, “from personalities and emotions of men and women I meet”:
Movement 1: Gershwin wanted to capture “the young, enthusiastic spirit of American life” with several themes, including one with an underlying “Charleston rhythm.”
Movement 2: The slow movement, he wrote, is “almost Mozartian in its simplicity,” with “a poetic, nocturnal tone. It utilizes the atmosphere of the American blues.”
Movement 3: The finale is “an orgy of rhythms,” he wrote, “starting violently and keeping to the same pace throughout.”
The Piano Concerto has its razzle-dazzle, but Gershwin experiments with orchestral colors. At one moment, the solo piano is accompanied by violas and English horn. At another, a muted trumpet sings above close-harmony clarinets.
“It is a musical kaleidoscope of America,” said Gershwin of his Rhapsody in Blue, although he could have been speaking of the Piano Concerto. “Of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness.”
Gershwin—always busy—completed the new concerto while at work on no fewer than three Broadway musicals. Still, the concerto was a source of pride, and its first rehearsals and performances were, he wrote later, “the peak of my highest joy.”
First performance: December 3, 1925, by the New York Symphony, Walter Damrosch conducting, with the composer as soloist First SLSO performance: February 2, 1946, Vladimir Golschmann conducting, with Jesus Maria Sanroma as soloist Most recent SLSO performance: April 9, 2017, David Robertson conducting, with Kirill Gerstein as soloist
Instrumentation: solo piano, 3 flutes (third doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, strings
Approximate duration: 31 minutes
Symphony No. 3
Born April 1, 1873 Semyonovo, Russia
Died March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills, California
In 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution threw Russia into turmoil. Inflation spun out of control, food was scarce, and uprisings threatened rich and poor. With life and livelihood at stake, the 44-year-old Sergei Rachmaninoff left his homeland.
The exile would be permanent. “This is a burden heavier to me than any other,” wrote Rachmaninoff. “I have no country. I had to leave the land where I was born, where I struggled and suffered all the sorrows of the young, and where I finally achieved success.”
Between 1918 and his death in 1943, Rachmaninoff would write only six new works. “Losing my country, I lost myself also,” he wrote. “To the exile whose musical roots have been annihilated, there remains no desire for self-expression; no solace apart from the unbreakable silence of memory.”
Summers activated Rachmaninoff’s homesickness. Yearning for a place of escape and refuge, the 60-year-old composer and his wife built the Villa Senar on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. There they could surrounded themselves with Russian food, literature, friends, and customs.
It had been three decades since his previous symphony. Then, he vowed never to write another. But lakeside calm and renewal must have spurred action, because by the end of his third summer at the villa, Rachmaninoff had two movements of a new symphony.
The Third Symphony, like Rachmaninoff himself, is a collision of old and new. Rachmaninoff was resolutely old-world, locking himself in something of a pre-Revolution bubble. Yet he was fascinated by modern contraptions: fast cars, speedboats, new-fangled inventions.
The symphony opens with an invented church chant, an otherworldly sound intoned by clarinet, viola, and horn. This chant reappears throughout the work, always in different guises: sometimes murmured, sometimes sung, sometimes screamed.
But the Third Symphony has a modern edge. Its music is in near-constant flux, shocking with an extreme change or shuffling impatiently from idea to the next. Newer sounds abound: strange combinations, muted brass, violinists playing with the wood of their bows.
The work’s ambivalence is perfectly captured in the middle movement. Here, slow movement and fast scherzo are fused. Indeed, we might see a portrait of Rachmaninoff himself: the slow-moving melancholy of the old world wedded to the fast-forward impatience of the new.
First performance: November 6, 1936, by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski conducting First SLSO performance: November 27, 1936, Vladimir Golschmann conducting Most recent SLSO performance: March 20, 2010, André Previn conducting Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, alto trumpet, tuba, timpani, percussion, 2 harps, celesta, strings Approximate duration: 39 minutes
Tim Munro is the SLSO’s Creative Partner. A writer, broadcaster, and Grammy-winning flutist, he lives in Chicago with his wife, son, and badly behaved orange cat.