Lee: Songs for the People Premieres

Songs for the People has such beauty and depth. It has rich, musical sonorities that touch me to my core!” — Denyce Graves

Denyce Graves, courtesy: DenyceGraves.com

And so, celebrated mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves shares her thoughts about James Lee III’s new song, which premieres on May 1, as part of the Tulsa Opera’s “Greenwood Overcomes” concerts. Commissioned by the Tulsa Opera, Songs of the People is a five-and-a-half minute work for voice and piano. The first performance also features pianist — and program curator (in coordination with Tulsa Opera artistic director Tobias Picker) —Howard Watkins. Lee’s new song is part of the opera company’s special concerts featuring music for voice and piano by 23 living Black composers, performed by eight Black artists. The program commemorates the centennial of the historic 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, and honors the resilience of Black Tulsans and Black America. The live, in-person, socially-distanced concert will also be live-streamed; and, due to high demand, a second date – May 2 – has been added. “Greenwood Overcomes” will be performed against a mural backdrop by Tulsa graffiti artist Chris “Sker” Rogers, commissioned by the Tulsa Opera.

Street mural backdrop by Tulsa graffiti artist Chris “Sker” Rogers.

Howard Watkins comments. “It really brings me great joy to have James Lee’s work represented on this important concert. The marriage of his great intellect, inspiration, and heart to the poetry of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper is this wonderful song, created in record time by James for Denyce Graves. We all knew when we read the poem that there were wonderful possibilities in the text, but James’ song was a dream come true! It captures the ‘old,’ the ‘young,’ those at battle, and those who are world weary. I knew James as a young pianist at The University of Michigan many years ago, and his understanding of how to write effectively and comfortably for the piano is proof of his own piano skills. As the last lines of the poem say, it is ‘music to sooth all sorrow till war and crime shall cease,’ and as such, it is a perfect celebration of this occasion of the Tulsa Massacre Centennial as we strive to heal and move forward.