James Lee III — Fantastic Voyages

I had not heard James Lee III’s music before I received this release. And shame on me. This gifted African-American composer has a rare talent for melody and orchestration. And he has a musical imagination that’s well-served by those talents.

Lee writes, “I want to compose music to reach to the inner soul of the listener that elevates them irregardless of race and religious affiliation.”

And he does. Lee’s musical language is essentially tonal, though fluid. It sounds contemporary while still being accessible.

Marion Alsop leads the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra in some energized performances. The album opens with “Sukkot: Through Orion’s Nebula.” Sukkot means Feast of Tabernacles in Hebrew. Lee also takes it to mean festivities. Sukkot is the most abstract work on the release, and the most exuberant. It’s a perfect concert opener.

A Different Solider’s Tale was inspired by Lee’s grandfather. He had served in World War II. His experiences as an African-American soldier were very different from his white comrades-in-arms. Lee’s music illustrates the action and emotions effectively.

Chuphshah! Harriet’s Drive to Canaan ends the program. It’s a tone poem inspired by the life of Harriet Tubman. According to Lee, “chuphshah” means freedom from slavery. (I misread it as chutzpah, which means something very different — but still applies to Tubman, I think.)

Lee quotes from Negro spirituals, Dixie, and the Battle Hymn of the Republic. But these motifs are continuously transformed, aiding the narrative. It’s an exciting work, and a contemplative one, too.

Highly recommended.

Voyages: Orchestral music by James Lee III
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop, conductor
AVIE Records AV2507

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