Sunday, August 3, 2014

Melodic Piano Works of James Lee III on 'Alkebulan's Son' are Fitting Companions to his Fascinating Orchestral Works

Alkebulan's Son: The Piano Works of James Lee III
Albany Records Troy 1494 (2014)

James Lee III

Rochelle Sennet

On May 1, 2014 AfriClassical posted: 'Alkebulan's Son: The Piano Works of James Lee III' given recording premieres by pianist Rochelle Sennet on Albany Records Troy 1494

James Lee III has been featured frequently on AfriClassical since 2009.  He was born in 1975 in St. Joseph, Michigan, a popular tourist destination on the shores of Lake Michigan, just 90 miles from downtown Chicago.  The composer earned his Bachelor, Masters and Doctoral degrees at the University of Michigan.  The liner notes identify his principal composition teachers as “Michael Daugherty, William Bolcom, Bright Sheng, Betsy Jolas, Susan Botti, Erik Santos and James Aikman.”  The notes add: As a composition fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center in the summer of 2002, he added Osvaldo Golijov, Michael Gandolfi, Steven Mackey and Kaija Saariaho to his roster of teachers, and studied conducting with Stefan Asbury.”  

Dr. Lee is an Associate Professor of Composition and Theory at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland.  His website announces: "Recently, James Lee III has been invited to be a composer among a list of internationally recognized composers to participate in the Psalms Project of the organization Soli Deo Gloria." 

Leonard Slatkin, now Conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, has programmed music of James Lee III since 2006.  His premieres of Dr. Lee’s work include Beyond Rivers of Vision at the Kennedy Center and A Different Soldier’s Tale with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra commissioned Chupshah! Harriet’s Drive to Canaan.  For the Sphinx Commissioning Consortium, “He composed a new work called Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula that was premiered by Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony Orchestra in Miami Beach, Florida.” The Ritz Chamber Players have premiered the piano quintet Night Visions of KippurAncient Words, Current Realities! is a composition for band which “was premiered by the St. Olaf Band in Greensboro, North Carolina,” the liner notes report. The notes continue: “Dr. Lee’s collaboration with pianist Dr. Rochelle Sennet resulted in the premiere of his Piano Sonata No. 2 The Remnant at the University of Illinois, which also appears on this recording.

Dr. Lee writes: “Piano Sonata No. 1 was composed during the summer and autumn of 2002.”  He notes he was at the Tanglewood Music Center when he began the composition.  “This work is cast into three movements and it follows a traditional structure of a first movement in sonata form, a slow movement in the middle, and a rondo for the last movement.” “Movement two is designed to be a wistful dreamlike rest between two very energetic movements.”

The second work, Souls of Alkebulan uses ‘the indigenous name for the continent of Africa.”  Its movements are: Vitality of Kemet; Memories of Axum; Heart of Kalimba; Lost Treasures and Warrior DanceFantasia Ritmica, written in 2003, is the third work, in a single movement.  The recording concludes with Piano Sonata No. 2, “The Remnant.”  Dr. Lee explains: “Piano Sonata No. 2 was composed in 2011 for the pianist Rochelle Sennet to be premiered at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.”  “I         have a deep interest in the visions of the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation.  This work comes as part of an over-arching design for my latest works.  I am also influenced by the evocative music of Charles Ives and Olivier Messiaen.  My piano sonata is structured in four movements.  The first movement is in sonata form and contains a musical commentary on the career of the dragon and his earthly representatives as they persecute the women mentioned in Revelation 12.”

The composer explains the first movement contains both “aggressive tones and melodies evoking humility.”  He tells us the second movement communicates “longing and sadness.” Dr. Lee continues: “By contrast, the third movement contains areas of tonal ambiguity and the use of ‘deceptive cadences.’” “The last movement is in rondo form with a coda.  There are rhapsodic-like episodes with forward-driving rhythms inspired by Alberto Ginastera.”

The liner notes say of the pianist: “Dr. Rochelle Sennet, Assistant Professor of Piano at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has established herself as a well-known performer, teacher, and scholar.  She received the Bachelor of Music degree from San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Master of Music degree from the University of Michigan, an Artist Diploma from Texas Christian University, and the Doctor of Musical Arts degree from University of Illinois, all in piano performance. Her recital programs showcase her versatility at the keyboard, with frequent performances of works by J.S. Bach, Beethoven, and African American composers such as H. Leslie Adams, Adolphus Hailstork, James Lee III, and Pulitzer Prize winning composer George Walker."

H. Leslie Adams (b. 1932), Adolphus C. Hailstork (b. 1941) and George Walker (b. 1922) are profiled at, which features a Works List and Bibliography for H. Leslie Adams by Dr. Dominique-René de Lerma,

We find the piano works of James Lee III more melodic, and consequently more enjoyable, than those of most living classical composers. They are fitting companions to Dr. Lee's fascinating works of orchestral music. These compositions have retained their freshness for us through numerous hearings, and seem likely to continue to do so.

Disclosure:  A review copy of this recording was provided by the record label.

Comments by email:

1) Hello Bill,  Thanks for the review. I'm glad that you enjoyed the CD!  James [James Lee III,

2) Dear Bill, thanks for the information.  hla  [H. Leslie Adams]

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