Premiere to open New World Symphony season with a dual blast of diversity

By Caitlin McKechney

James Lee III's "Sukkot: Through Orion's Nebula" will be heard on the New World Symphony's opening program Oct. 15 and 16.

Diversity may not have been planned as the official theme of the New World Symphony’s 24th season opener, but it is certainly the palpable result.

When Michael Tilson Thomas gives the downbeat Oct. 15 for the orchestra’s season-opening concert, the program will be framed by music of two Czech composers, feature a Spanish pianist playing a cornerstone German concerto, and offer the world premiere of a new work by a young African-American composer on a Jewish religious theme.

“Our opening program presents a musical picture of Miami cultures, “ says Tilson Thomas. “Czech folklore, German Romanticism, an African American visionary, a Spanish pianist and our orchestra composed of musicians from around the world.  We hope the audience will have a personal, enriching and inspiring experience.”

James Lee III’s Sukkot: Through Orion’s Nebula will receive its debut performance at next weekend’s concerts in Miami Beach. This new work by the composer follows the performance last year of Lee’s Chuphshah! Harriet’s Drive to Canaan by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which the Washington Post described as “generat[ing] some potent atmosphere, with a hint of dissonance to flavor an otherwise warmly tonal writing style.”

The 35-year-old composer describes his music as “basically a tonal musical style that is not based on functional harmony,” preferring a more overtly approachable idiom that speaks directly to audiences.

The inspiration for Sukkot, says Lee, came from two elements: the practical request for a work of ten minutes’ duration and his intense interest in the Book of Revelation.

“I like to compose a lot of works on the biblical book of Revelation,” said Lee. “I planned to incorporate various aspects of those books throughout my work.

“In particular there are certain feast days that are mentioned in the Old Testament in relationship to the sanctuary and those are also seen on a larger scale through the Book of Revelation,” he adds. “So this particular work fits in to one of those feast days.”

Sukkot, the eight-day Hebrew harvest festival recalls the week after the Israelites departed Egypt. As they moved from one place to another they built small huts called sukkot, that gave them temporary shelter in the desert. Such dwellings are built today during the festival as reminders of Israel’s agricultural history and of the Israelis exodus from Egypt. Sukkot is often referred to as the “Feast of Tabernacles” or “The Feast” because of its significance in Judaism.

“I was told that the orchestras wanted something around ten minutes that was festive and I thought, ‘Why not use this particular festival?,’” said Lee. “And when it premieres next week it will actually be around the time of the actual feast.”

The composer is certainly likely to capture the attention of the audience with the work’s opening fanfare of horns reminiscent of the Shofar, which Lee says is intended to “evoke images of grandeur but also the sublime.”

For the New World’s music director, Lee’s music will make the ideal lead-off to the new season. “We are all most impressed with the broad vision of James Lee’s new piece, which brilliantly uses every section of this virtuoso orchestra,” said Tilson Thomas.

Born in St. Joseph, Michigan, Lee studied at the University of Michigan where he completed a bachelors degree in piano, and a masters and doctorate in composition. There he studied under William Bolcom, Bright Sheng, and Michael Daugherty. Lee’s career was effectively launched when his Beyond Rivers of Vision was premiered by Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra in 2006. He is currently a professor of composition and theory at Morgan State University in Baltimore.

Sukkot: Through Orion’s Nebula was commissioned by the Sphinx Commissioning Consortium (SCC), an organization that commissions works of African-American and Latino composers with the purpose of bringing their works to the concert hall.  Following next weekend’s New World concerts Sukkot will be performed by as many as 12 other orchestras around the country.

The work’s Nebula reference refers to the “belt” of the constellation, the only star system referenced in the Old Testament.  It is said that this is the point through which the Messiah will travel to come to earth, and the same point that all people who would want to have a relationship with the Messiah would need to reach.

While Lee states that he would be glad to appeal to those with a personal religious connection to the holiday, he also wants to go beyond the specific inspiration to “appeal to the mind that hasn’t studied these biblical topics.”

That intent is clear in the artist statement on the composer’s website: “I want to compose music to reach to the inner soul of the listener that elevates them irregardless of race and religious affiliation.”

Michael Tilson Thomas leads the New World Symphony in Smetana’s Overture to The Bartered Bride, Janacek’s Sinfonietta, James Lee III’s Sukkot: Through Orion’s Nebula and the Schumann Piano Concerto with Javier Perianes 7:30 p.m. Oct. 15 and 2 p.m. Oct. 16 at New World Center. Both concerts are sold out but the Saturday performance will be projected as an outdoor Wallcast for free.; 305-673-3331

Caitlin McKechney is a mezzo-soprano, writer, visual artist, and voice teacher.

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One Response to “Premiere to open New World Symphony season with a dual blast of diversity”

  1. Posted Oct 09, 2011 at 9:08 pm by Nitza Nachmias

    Dr. Lee is an amazing composer. I heard his piece “Chuphshah! Harriet’s Drive to Canaan “, played by the BSO, and it was an unbelievable spiritual experience! Dr. Lee is definitely one of the greatest composers of the 21st century!

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