Lee: Times We’re Living In

I wanted to commission works that would speak to the times we’re living in.

So notes, Kenneth Kiesler – University of Michigan’s director of orchestras — on the eve of the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra’s April 6, 2022 world premiere of James Lee III’s newest orchestral work Tethered Voices, narrated by Myah Paden. The work is based on the texts of Kalena Bovell. The concert takes place at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor. Tethered Voices is the first work commissioned as part of the Michigan Orchestra Repertoire for Equity project (MORE), which was established by Kiesler with the intent to diversify orchestral music, to record each commission, and to expand classical orchestral repertoire by bringing important contemporary artistic voices to the fore. While Tethered Voices was previously recorded by the university’s orchestra during September 2020, this will be the work’s first live-concert performance.

Conductor Kenneth Kiesler, courtesy: kennethkiesler.com

Kiesler continues. “Kalena Bovell sent me her poem, called ‘Tethered Voices,’ which she wrote in the aftermath of the George Floyd tragedy. It’s powerful. It spoke to me, and it immediately sparked the idea that a setting of ‘Tethered Voices’ for narrator or speaker with orchestra would be extraordinary…I had been impressed by other music James sent me, so I called and asked him to write [this] piece.”

Lee comments on his new work. “Tethered Voices is inspired by the words of conductor and poet Kalena Bovell, which were written on June 2, 2020. Much of the world was under lockdown mandates in order to help fight COVID-19. It was also only one week before that former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin held his knee on George Floyd’s neck, which resulted in Floyd’s death and the subsequent outrage and protests that occurred in many cities in the United States and other countries. This work is a musical commentary on the prejudice and racism experienced by many members of the African American community in the United States…[Bovell’s poem] is compelling [and] quite stunning…[and] this is an opportunity to address this kind of subject matter through art.”

Lee adds, “I always have great feelings for Ann Arbor [and] for the University of Michigan.” (Lee is a doctoral graduate of the school.) “I had great experiences there. I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing now, if it were not for my training there in the composition program. I’m very grateful to be able to come back.” View the live-stream performance here.

More Lee news: Lee has three more performances this month: 1) on the 19th, clarinetist Anthony McGill joins the Pacific Quartet to perform the Clarinet Quintet in Athens, GA; 2) Hopkins Symphony Orchestra presents the composer’s Arukah Symphony in Baltimore, conducted by Jed Gaylin on April 23rd , and 3) also on April 23rd, Lee’s chamber work Ad Anah? will be performed by Anthony McGill and pianist Anna Polonsky at Dumbarton Concerts in Washington, DC.