Composer James Lee III is a measured person, even in conversation.
He’s pleased, of course, to have his 2018 composition “Emotional Transformations” included on the program of the South Carolina Philharmonic’s annual Beethoven & Blue Jeans performance, but there’s an evenness that comes from an established career with a steady stream of prestigious commissions for pieces ranging from piano and vocal ensembles to chamber and orchestral groups.
“This is one of the few times I've actually been programmed with Beethoven, usually I’m programmed with [Czech composer Antonín] Dvořák,” he told Free Times. “Given the towering figure that Beethoven was or is today, it's always a nice way to really see how the orchestra or the way of thinking about music has evolved over the centuries.
“My piece has the exact same instrumentation as the Beethoven Symphony No. 2,” Lee added, noting the piece the Philharmonic will play directly before his. “So you can see what you can do with the same instruments, but centuries later.”
But while there’s a happy, upbeat spirit to the Beethoven symphony, Lee’s work is one of mourning. Directly inspired by losing his father to pancreatic cancer, the piece is designed to “express certain aspects of mourning or grief,” according to the composer.
“There's this two-note motif that is heard earlier on in the composition, and it's kind of transformed in different ways throughout,” he explained. “At one point, after that motif is heard, the strings are just kind of singing, but more like a cry in like the stratosphere. It's almost going over the top. But then, instead of going over the top, like in a Shostakovich or Mahler symphony, it really kind of subsides and dies away. And then the music moves towards more of a kind of hopeful sound because, of course, in my faith there is the teaching of a future resurrection to life.”
That faith as a Seventh-day Adventist often plays a big role in inspiring Lee’s approach, particularly the Biblical books of Daniel and Revelations. Themes of mourning, religion and perseverance are frequent subjects for Lee’s compositions.
“I remember when I was a student being interested that Messiaen, who was a Roman Catholic, was so influenced by his Catholic faith,” he recalled. “I thought, ‘Well, why can't I also use some of the things I've been studying and reading about over the years, as some of the influences on my work?'”
There is, of course, also something smart about placing Lee, a living black composer, next to Beethoven, a kind of emblematic figure of white European greatness that has led to racial bias in classical music for centuries. It’s a practice that the Philharmonic, which is led by the Japanese conductor Morihiko Nakahara, has frequently employed in the past as well.
Lee himself doesn’t place too much emphasis on racial balance in programming, although he said it’s nice to see programs when all the composers are people of color, which is happening more often.
“I'm always more interested to see how a program is thought about in terms of how they're programming my music with other composers,” he demurred. “That's what I'm thinking about most of the time. I'm always grateful when I can have my work heard.”
Still, he does think the impact of the Black Lives Matter protests from last summer have affected the classical music world.
“There’s definitely been more interest in programming music by composers of color,” he noted. “I don’t think I’ve ever had as many commissions at one time as I do now. And I wrote this one solo cello piece about Trayvon Martin’s death back in 2013. It wasn’t a commissioned work, but it was something (to) express what I was feeling after the trial. And that piece has been something that people have gravitated toward. It's amazing how many people have been playing it ever since, and particularly over the last year.”
South Carolina Philharmonic: Beethoven & Blue Jeans
April 24. 6 and 8 p.m. Koger Center. 1051 Greene St. In-person seatings and live-stream available. $15-$55. scphilharmonic.com.