James Lee III: Three Outstanding Women

This is a concerto based on three outstanding women activists.”James Lee III

On January 6, 2024, English horn soloist Darci Gamerl begins her concert programming for the New Year when she joins the Augusta Symphony Orchestra in the premiere of James Lee III’s new concerto Courageous Lights. Dirk Meyer conducts the premiere at Miller Theater in Augusta, GA. The three-movement, 24-minute work was written for the soloist, and was co-commissioned along with the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra and the Lincoln’s Symphony Orchestra (NE). Courageous Lights is the composer’s homage to three, historic women: contemporary American poet Amanda Gorman; 19th and early 20th-century Native American writer, musician and educator Zitkála-Sá, and present-day Pakistani education advocate and 2014 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai.

Darci Gamerl, English horn. Courtesy: darcigamerl.com

Darci Gamerl offers some insight into Lee’s concerto as she prepares for its world premiere. “James Lee III’s Courageous Lights draws its inspiration from the lives of three women – Amanda Gorman, Zitkala-Ša (Gertrude Bonnin/Red Bird) and Malala Yousafzai. Each movement is crafted around the unique facets of their work to bring about equality and inclusion, dignity and peace. Dr. Lee’s music embodies their courage and tenacity in an inspirational and uplifting way! It is an honor and a privilege to breathe life into such a skillfully crafted composition in partnership with the commissioning orchestras and their visionary leadership.”

Amanda Gorman. Photo: Stephanie Mitchell; courtesy: The Harvard-Gazette

Lee notes, “The concerto’s title is derived from how these women have courageously sought to be a light and inspire positive change in their individual sphere of influence. The first movement – ‘Amanda’s Ascent’ – is inspired by American poet and activist Amanda Gorman’s poem, ‘The Hill We Climb’ [written] for President Joseph Biden’s inauguration. Specifically, the movement is inspired by themes of light and unity. Amanda Gorman has an auditory processing disorder and is hypersensitive to sound. She view’s her speech impediment as a gift and a strength. The music contains aspects of darkness with continual ascending motivic figures that strive to reach a place of light, while overcoming challenging obstacles.

Zitkála-Sá, Photo: Gertrude Käsebier

“Movement Two, ‘Zitkála-Sá’s Song,’ is the Lakota Native American Indian word for ‘Red Bird.’ This movement is inspired by Zitkála-Sá’s activism as she advocated for American Indians to receive full citizenship in the United States. She also had an internal ‘tug-of-war’ of being perceived as ‘wild’ or ‘civilized’ by the dominant American culture. She boldly stated ‘I am that I am.’ The music in this movement reflects her passion for change and the uplifting of her people. The music also evokes sounds of Native American melodies.”

Malala Yousafzai. Photo: K. Opprann; Courtesy: The Nobel Prize

“The final movement,” Lee adds, “‘Malala’s Yearning,’ is inspired by Malala Yousafzai and her activism in striving for the education of girls. She has advocated for safe and free education and has also teamed up with Apple TV+ to bring forward the voices of women and people of color. The character of this last movement is one of yearning and triumph. There are various dialogues between the English horn and orchestra that evoke Malala’s name rhythmically in the orchestra.” Later this spring, Gamerl reprises Courageous Lights in Nebraska with the Lincoln’s Symphony Orchestra, led by Edward Polochick.

More Lee news: Additional January concerts include two vocal chamber works: A Double Standard sung by Karen Slack and the Pacifica Quartet in Denver on January 17; and in Philadelphia on January 24, Chavah’s Daughters Speak will be performed by soprano Susanna Phillips joined by Anthony McGill on clarinet and pianist Myra Huang.