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James Lee III

b. 1975

Clare Longendyke.jpg

Admired for his “bright, pure music” (The Washington Post), with music described as “atmospheric and endlessly inventive” (Cincinnati Business Courier), James Lee III is the composer of more than 80 works for orchestra, chamber ensemble, piano, vocals, choral ensemble and more. During the 2024-2025 season, he will be composer-in-residence with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Raised in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Lee has taken rich inspiration from close study of Biblical texts, from history, and from the international presence of his faith. In addition to English, he speaks five languages: German, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Hebrew. Among his career honors, Lee has been recognized with a Charles Ives Scholarship and the Wladimir Lakond Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Lee’s compositions have been performed by major orchestras and solo performers across the United States as well as Europe and Latin America, and can be heard on nine recordings, including Anthony McGill and the Pacifica Quartet’s GRAMMY Award-nominated American Stories, cellist Inbal Segev’s 20 for 2020, and the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony led by Marin Alsop.

For winter and spring of 2024, Lee’s highlights include the world premiere of his English horn concerto Courageous Lights, performed by Darci Gamerl and the Augusta Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Dirk Meyers. This season also brings performances of his work by soprano Susanna Phillips, cellist Myra Huang, clarinetist Anthony McGill, and soprano Karen Slack with the Pacifica Quartet. Among the major orchestral performances for the early part of 2024, Lee’s work features on programs by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Minnesota Orchestra, Hamburg Symphony Orchestra, Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, and Lincoln’s Symphony Orchestra in Nebraska. In fall 2023, works by Lee were performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, New World Symphony and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. His piano concerto Shades of Unbroken Dreams was premiered by pianist Alexandra Dariescu and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Fabien Gabel – followed by the UK premiere by Dariescu and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra.

In a string of premieres over recent years, Lee has introduced orchestral works including Amer’ican, premiered by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra; Freedom’s Genuine Dawn, premiered by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; Arukah Symphony, premiered by the Maryland Symphony Orchestra; Hold On, America, Hold On!, premiered by the Battle Creek Symphony Orchestra; and Tethered Voices, premiered by the University Symphony Orchestra at the University of Michigan. Other works to see their world premieres in recent seasons include Lee’s flute concerto Niiji Memories, premiered by Julietta Curenton and the Columbia Orchestra; his chamber piece Tones of Clay, premiered by the Calyx Piano Trio at Tanglewood; his Violin Concerto No. 2 “Teshuah,” premiered by violinist Carla Trynchuk and the Andrews University Symphony Orchestra; and a piece composed for soprano and string quartet, A Double Standard, performed by Karen Slack and the Pacifica String Quartet at Carnegie Hall.

In the course of his composing career, Lee’s orchestral works have been commissioned and premiered by the National Symphony Orchestra, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, New World Symphony Orchestra, and the orchestras of Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Omaha, Pasadena, Memphis, Grand Rapids, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Akron – led by conductors including Leonard Slatkin, Marin Alsop, Michael Tilson Thomas, Juanjo Mena, David Lockington and Thomas Wilkins, among others. As winner of the Sphinx Commissioning Consortium for the 2011-2012 season, Lee composed one of his best known works, Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula, which was premiered by the New World Symphony Orchestra, led by Michael Tilson Thomas, in 2011. In 2014, he was a Fulbright Scholar and Visiting Professor to the State University of Campinas in Campinas, São Paulo, Brazil, where he composed, taught composition, and researched the music of 20th and 21st century Brazilian composers. Lee also previously served as composer-in-residence for the Ritz Chamber Players, an African-American chamber music society based in Jacksonville, Florida. He was selected for two key commissions by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: Chuphshah! Harriet’s Drive to Canaan, a work inspired by the life of Harriet Tubman, and Thurgood’s Rhapsody, commissioned for the orchestra’s centennial season in 2015-2016.

Lee’s compositions are captured on albums including Voyages – Orchestral Music by James Lee III (RSO Records, 2022), recorded by ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra with conductor Marin Alsop, and Alkebulan's Son: The Piano Works of James Lee III (Albany Records, 2014), recorded by pianist Rochelle Sennet. Selections of his work can also be heard on Compelling Portraits (Navona Records, 2023), by trombonist Kenneth Thompkins; Inbal Segev: 20 for 2020 (Avie Records, 2022), by cellist Inbal Segev; American Stories (Cedille Records, 2022), by Anthony McGill and the Pacifica Quartet; Threads (Elmhurst Records, 2022), by cellist Rebecca Merblum; Memories Unsettled (Navona Records, 2022), by the Gibbs Street Duo; Recuerdos Diaspóricos (Blue Griffin Records, 2022), by pianist Josh Tatsuo Cullen; and Christmas at America's First Cathedral (Gothic Records, 2010), by Baltimore Choral Arts Orchestral, with conductor Tom Hall.

Born in St. Joseph, Michigan, Lee began his musical studies as a piano student. After earning a bachelor’s degree in piano performance from the University of Michigan, he was advised by a friend – Latin GRAMMY Award-winning composer Gabriela Lena Frank – to enter the university’s Master of Music program in composition, where he earned both master’s and doctoral degrees in composition. His career began in earnest when his dissertation work Beyond Rivers of Vision (2005) was premiered by Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. in October 2006. A second early work, A Different Soldier's Tale, was premiered by Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in December 2008. Lee currently lives with his wife Adnéia in Maryland, where he is a professor of theory and composition at Morgan State University. His passions beyond music include his faith, travel, languages and international soccer.

His compositions teachers included Michael Daugherty, William Bolcom, Bright Sheng, Betsy Jolas, Susan Botti, Erik Santos and James Aikman. Lee also served as a composition fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center in the summer of 2002, studying with Osvaldo Golijov, Michael Gandolfi, Steven Mackey, Kaija Saariaho, and Stefan Asbury.

Bio credit: James Lee III Photo credit: Roy Cox

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