THOMAS OBOE LEE: Articles, Previews, Reviews - from 1979 to the present.


Vance R. Koven, "Gasson Hall Well Served"
Boston Musical Intelligencer, September 17, 2013

The central spot on the program (there was no intermission) was given to the premiere of Thomas Oboe Lee’s Grand Duo, op. 151. A title like that conjures thoughts of the galant style and early Romanticism, but as Lee acknowledged in his oral introduction, the key influence on the piece is Bach, so much so that two of the five movements could be misread as actual quotations, and another as a hat-tip to a particular popular Bach number. The opening movement features a downward ranging ostinato in the piano against violin passages that primarily go up. The instruments collaborate based on the slightly creepy ostinato in phrases that break off before they’re quite done. The second movement is an exercise in Bachian counterpoint that illustrates Lee’s stated goal of writing the way Glenn Gould would have played, with ample material to bring out in the inner voices. In this respect, Song was the perfect foil to Muresanu’s bustling, tootling top line, which broke out occasionally in impassioned lyrical descant that suggested Villa-Lobos without the national elements. The third movement was a scherzo whose outer sections were a sprightly gigue framing a surprise bluesy trio in a harmonically more “advanced” idiom (speaking relatively: the Bachian music was really Bachian in sound, and the trio more like, say, Franck—when Lee went neo-tonal he did it all the way, like Easley Blackwood). The fourth movement was another haunting one, whose violin line sounded like it was going to break out in the tune from Bach’s Toccata in D minor, but never got past its opening motif. The piano part featured three ominously repeated staccato chords. The finale began as mock-Rachmaninov, with a flowing arpeggiated piano line and soaring lyricism in the violin, but just before the end they switched to rapid passagework en route to an abrupt close. (Irina) Muresanu and (J.Y.) Song were superb throughout, and the work, while charming and effective, did leave one wondering, “why?”

Composer's response: Why not???



Laurence Vittes, "Boston's BMOP champions local composer's concertos"
Gramophone
, July 2013

Flauta Carioca, ... bisbigliando, Violin Concerto, Piano Concerto "Mozartiana," Persephone and the Four Seasons, Eurydice.  Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose.  BMOP/Sound 1025

BMOP celebrates the 67th birthday of Thomas Oboe Lee, a composer of great renown in Boston and Cambridge, with six concertos written between 1995 and 2010.  These are concertante works in a 21st-century take on the late-18th-century vein, with an absorbing fluency of narrative expression and a profusion of pleasing melody - with lots of great solo parts for the instruments in the orchestra, too.  Each of the concertos has a story, and each was written for friends.

The star is the Violin Concerto, written for Bucharest-born Irina Muresanu.  Lee writes that he 'researched Brahms, Sibelius, Mozart, Prokofiev' and it shows - until he starts getting it right by getting it wrong at the most outlandish places, and the pyrotechnics and attitude that Muresanu must employ to maintain control are breathtaking.  Mozartiana is also an absorbing exploration of what we know and what we don't, in this case Mozart.  Rising well above its premise of kidnapping Mozart fragments, it even provides time at the end for Cambridge neighbor and dedicatee Robert Levin to engage in a cadenza.  Flauta Carioca is a semi-classical flute concerto inspired by the composer's Brazilian roots; Eurydice is a sumptuous 30-minute cello oration inspired by Berlioz's Harold in Italy.  The effect is cumulative.  These are substantial concertos; they fill  out well the two discs.

Lee is well served by a series of outstanding performances headlined by stellar soloists who sound as if they cared.  Martin Brody's essay, carelessly imagining bossa nova and Tonnetz 'dancing together', hits just the right academic note.
 


Jim Svejda, "A Diverse Musical Mix"
Classical KUSC,
Music Shelf, June 2013

LEE: Six Concetos.  Various soloists.  Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose.  BMOP/Sound 1025

Born in China in 1945 and raised in São Paulo, Brazil, Thomas Oboe Lee has lived in the United States since the mid-1960s.  As you might guess from these barest facts of his biography, they make for a rather heady cultural mix.  As the composer himself disarmingly puts it: "The first thing people say after hearing my music is, 'Your stuff is all over the place.  I hear jazz, I hear samba, I hear neoclassical and romantic things...' "

In this new recording of six of Lee's concertos, you hear all of that and more.

The jazzy, sultry Flauta Carioca - a flute concerto with a slow movement marked Bossa Nova - while the most "South American" of all these hugely entertaining works, it resists any easy classification, just as the elegantly classical piano concerto Mozartiana and the intensely romantic Violin Concerto manage to do.  Eclectic, stubbornly original, defying both conventions and expectations, Lee's concertos are so insistently communicative and inventive that it's almost impossible not to like them.  While the tone poem for cello and orchestra Eurydice is the most ambitious of these pieces - and, at more than 32 minutes, it's so soulful, dramatic, and eventful that it never threatens to wear out its welcome - the pick of the collection may be that 17-minute oboe concerto on another classical  subject, the haunting and wistful Persephone and the Four Seasons.

As always, the performances by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Gil Rose sound definitive. 

In short, another triumph from a courageous and invaluable label.



Brian Reinhart, "Six Concertos" BMOP/Sound 1025
Music Web International, May 13, 2013

Thomas Oboe Lee weaves many influences into a distinctive artistic voice.  Born in China to nightclub singers, he spent his teenage years living in Brazil, then moved to the United States to study composing at Harvard and the New England Conservatory.  Along the way he picked up the sounds not just of bossa nova and samba, but the cool American jazz of Davis, Coltrane and Evans.

What's delightful is that all this merged together into a composer of really interesting music.  These six concertos show his range and his talent for catchy, tuneful music with strong rhythms and emotions.  Flauta Carioca (Carioca is an adjective meaning 'from Rio de Janeiro') is the liveliest of the works, and the most obviously influenced by Brazil; the flute part dances with aplomb and a colorful orchestral accompaniment is only marred by the overenthusiastic triangle which dings all the way through the flautist's cadenza.  A central movement entitled "Bossa nova" does conjure up thoughts of the Getz/Gilberto moment when Brazil's big musical trend moved north.  The harp concerto, named ...bisbigliando... for reasons which elude me, also has a heavy stamp of Brazilian folk music, its repetitive finale overshadowed by the truly gorgeous, sensitively scored slow movement.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are two [more] austere works based on ancient myths: Persephone and the Four Seasons, a tiny oboe concerto, and Eurydice, a half-hour work for cello and orchestra.  Eurydice begins with a snarling full-orchestra wail, and the cellist's lyrical tendency is often set against a hostile orchestra in a work of contrasts and volatile emotions.

Don't let the title or the opening fool you: the piano concerto Mozartiana isn't overtly Mozartian.  It begins almost exactly the way Mozart's Concerto No. 20 does, before Lee veers very sharply off into his own direction; the finale returns us to his jazzy, indeed samba-like roots.  I think the most successful work that doesn't have some element of Brazilian folk music is the Violin Concerto, a work with shades of Sibelius, Prokofiev, and late Martinu that still sticks to Lee's own voice.  It's a terrific piece worth listening to many times; the first movement contains some of my favorite music in the whole set, and the violin part is breathtakingly lyrical and ecstatically played by Irina Muresanu.

Actually I should note here that all six soloists are superb advocates of the msuic.  Pianist Robert Levin even gets a chance to improvise a cadenza in Mozartiana, which, as the booklet observes, sounds as well-composed as anything else here, a mark of Levin's stature as a performer.  The Boston Modern Orchestra Project is totally engaged in the proceedings, although there are occasionally hints that half the series was recorded in a single day.

One thing I find quite interesting is the contrast between the two booklet notes.   Thomas Lee writes a two-page essay that is a model of clarity and good writing.  Here's how he describes the genesis of one piece: "I wrote the flute concerto Flauta Carioca for Bart Feller and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.  The executive director of the NJSO at the time said to me, 'Instead of a standard concerto, why don't you write something that's in your blood: Brazilian music?'  Sure!"   By contrast, the four-page essay by Martin Brody is full of nonsense about "a latent anxiety hovering around the musical oeuvre of Thoams Oboe Lee," a cartoon from the New Yorker, "Tom's own galaxy in" a "parallel universe" where obscure 19th-century musicologist Hugo Riemann knows how to dance, "Proustian gambits," "incommensurability," and how the primal wail at the start of Eurydice is a "rendering of Life Without Mozart."   Apparently the purpose of good music such as this is to dispel our root fear of Life Without Mozart.  Neither essay comments on the fact that Lee bears the name 'Oboe'.

Thoams Oboe Lee writes music like he writes words: clear, direct and effective, a pleasure to experience.  His music is not simple, in that it's worth analyzing and well worth hearing many times over, but it's not obtuse either: its challenges are natural, and its rewards bountiful.   It can be sweet, moving, withdrawn, outgoing.




Jan van Hasselt,
"Vuurdoop in Bunnik"
De Nieuwsbode Bunnik, May 21, 2012

Terwijl buiten de temperatuur naar zomerse waarden steeg, waren zondagmiddag 20 mei bezoekers van de Oude Dorpskerk in Bunnik getuige van de wereldpremière van het octet voor twee violen, altviool, cello, contrabas, klarinet, fagot en hoorn van de productieve Chinees-Amerikaanse componist Thomas Oboe Lee. Deze lichtte zijn opus-nummer 144 kort toe, waarna de plechtigheid door het Emmelos Ensemble, bestaande uit Elisabeth Perry en Mellisa Ussery, viool, Prunella Pacey, altviool, Guus Fabius, cello, Quirijn van Regteren Altena, contrabas, Nancy Braithwaite, klarinet, Louis van Nunen, fagot en Sergei Dovgaliouk, hoorn werd voltrokken. We hoorden een verrassend en volwassen werk waarin met gebruik van gedreven ritmiek en gepassioneerde instrumentatie heldere thema’s worden uitgewerkt. In zes delen klinken beknopte maar krachtige muzikale statements waarin met subtiele klankcombinaties de individuele instrumenten samen en naast elkaar worden geplaatst. De vele dansritmes verraden de Braziliaanse jeugd van de componist. De musici hadden zichtbaar plezier in het tot leven brengen van deze bijzondere creatie en realiseerden een overtuigende uitvoering die ook bij het publiek zeer in de smaak viel.
Als tegenwicht tegen deze jeugdige compositie klonk verder het al bijna twee eeuwen geliefde octet voor gelijke bezetting van Franz Schubert, een meesterwerk uit 1824. Het behoort tot de opgewektere werken van Schubert. We hoorden een enthousiaste en genuanceerde uitvoering waarin op ieder moment sprake was van attent samenspel. Met een roffel op de houten bankjes (!) van de Oude Dorpskerk dankte het publiek de musici.
De Kromme Rijn Concerten van volgend seizoen vinden plaats in De Gaarde aan de Provinciale weg te Bunnik. Het gevarieerde programma bestaat uit zes concerten, waaronder een uitvoering van muziektheater, met musici, acteurs, dansers en verteller. Het eerste concert is op 23 september 2012. Meer informatie: www.krommerijnconcerten.nl


http://www.groentje.nl/www/index.cfm?page=artikel&artid=959261



Matthew Guerrieri,
"Thomas Oboe Lee symphony premiere imagines Paris"
Boston Globe, November 21, 2011

The Paris conjured in the imagination of American vistors is a distinctive and palpable enough place to warrant its own passport stamp.  Thomas Oboe Lee's new Symphony No. 8, "City of Light" - commissioned by the Boston Classical Orchestra, premiered by them and conductor Steven Lipsitt at Faneuil Hall on Saturday - seems to unapologetically illustrate that imaginary Paris as much as the real one.

Lee's travelogue is more suite than symphony, more scenery than discourse.  Even the scenery feels idealized, Parisian-inspired genre evocations rather than the immediate experience of the city: a heavy drape of Byzantine chant for Sacré-Coeur, a swirl of asymmetric waltz for the Palais Garnier.  The "Musée du Louvre" finale plays as a Ravellian soundtrack, a romantic reunion among the museum's grand, chaotic profusion, maybe, instead of the profusion itself.

The music, well-anchored tonality spiced with Impressionistically jazzy touches, eschews development for charm: For the "Avenue des Champs-Élysées," Lee sets up a chattering backdrop of pizzicato strings, lays in piquant chorales from the horns and bassoons, high accents from the other winds, deep cello-bass pedals - and then simply regards such diverting colors from various angles.  The charm is sincere; the symphony might be the equivalent of postcards, but few cities provide such views the way Paris does.



Geoffrey Wieting, "Boys' Night Out Both Somber and Humorous"
Boston Musical Intelleigencer, January 24, 2011

... The next piece, a world premiere, was a one-man chamber opera De Profundis with music by eminent local composer Thomas Oboe Lee and libretto assembled by Jesse Martin from the homonymous epic letter by Oscar Wilde. In early 1897 the ruined playwright, incarcerated in Reading Gaol, was writing to his former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas (although this staged production is set after Wilde’s release, when he is “dying beyond my means” in Paris). The text encompasses a fascinating mass of contrasts: recriminating versus forgiving, overwrought versus calmly philosophical, despairing versus hopeful. Lee’s music likewise is highly varied. The opening chords evoke a world-weary cabaret song; during a later cri de Coeur, the piano part is strongly reminiscent of Henri Duparc’s powerful La vague et la cloche, which deals with the agony of human existence; and during a more optimistic moment it quotes Gabriel Fauré ’s graceful Le papillon et la fleur. By coincidence, very near the end, Wilde notes, over funereal chords, that he is a mystery to himself, in terms astonishingly similar to those of Fraenkel in the previous piece: “The final mystery is oneself. When one has . . . mapped out the seven heavens, star by star, there still remains oneself.” Whittlesey, as Wilde, and Busby modulated the many mood changes of the piece, conveying Wilde’s depression without the jarring shifts of manic depression. Lee’s music elegantly merged the high drama of opera with the intimacy of art song.



McLaren Harris, "Maximizing Musical Intent from Lydian Quartet"
Boston Musical Intelleigencer, March 28, 2010

... Thomas Oboe Lee was born in China but gained his musical footing in Brazil, where he spent his early life.  Though he has lived the last 30 years in the U.S., much of his music, by now well known, looks towards Brazilian/Latin dance idioms as well as jazz.  The Morango – Almost a Tango is his best-known work, widely played and much enjoyed Saturday by the Lydian Quartet and the audience alike.  Lighter and “friendlier” in nature than the preceding pieces, it was given the uplifting energy and rhythmic identity to bring out the tango flavor in a somewhat ethereal, almost mystical context – a great concluding work, especially in the hands of the four Lydians.



Steven Ledbetter, "Chamber Orchestra of Boston Brings Tangos to the Fore"
Boston Musical Intelleigencer, February 21, 2010

... It was followed by Thomas Oboe Lee’s best-known composition, Morango —Almost a Tango, originally written for the Kronos Quartet but here played with sensuous elegance by the orchestra. Its rounded form, beginning and ending with gentle ostinatos in the upper strings over pizzicato double bass, building in the center section to a more contrapuntal outburst, is very satisfying.

... Then came what was for me the highlight of the evening—the world première of Thomas Oboe Lee’s Tangata Manu, a vigorously colorful, rhythmically complex score that incorporates elements of salsa, samba, bolero, and tango in a vivacious score that should, if there is any justice, have “legs.” It is a work that I would unhesitatingly recommend to string orchestras (plus percussionist), and one that I hope to hear again soon.



Matthew Guerrieri,
"Orchestra celebrates architect Olmsted"
Boston Globe, September 5, 2009

On Wednesday night, the Boston Landmarks Orchestra was out to teach.

Since 2003, the group has commissioned a series of narrator-and-orchestra works showcasing Boston history; its latest (premiered earlier this summer), Thomas Oboe Lee’s “The Story of Frederick Law Olmsted,’’ telling of the pioneering 19th-century landscape architect, received both an introduction by Olmsted scholar Charles Beveridge and narration by former governor Michael Dukakis (whose administration shepherded a restoration of the Olmsted-designed Emerald Necklace). Class was in session on the Esplanade.

Nancy Stevenson’s text (that’s Stevenson, as in the Illinois political dynasty, incidentally) was didactically forthright, sketching Olmsted’s life as a parable of public service. Lee’s music evoked more than illustrated, with marches and pastoral hymns of a decidedly Gilded Age cast, a wind-up galop for Olmsted’s building, a burbling reel for the children’s play.

Guest conductor Beatrice Affron gave the nostalgia nice point, and kept an ideal pace for Dukakis’s clear, fluently sincere narration. The piece was effective in its modest charm: In the ensuing applause, a nearby lawn patron could be heard expressing her surprise at discovering that Olmsted designed New York’s Central Park. Mission accomplished.

The rest of the program, titled “Green Masterpieces,’’ maintained at least a thread of connection to the natural world. The duck calls and bird whistles of the “Toy Symphony’’ (attributed to Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang’s father) were enough of an excuse for its deadpan silliness; Claude Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun’’ paints a nature more mythical than real, but the casually lovely reading was worth it. Affron led vigorous readings of Mendelssohn’s “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage’’ and Handel’s “Water Music’’ in representation of the blue planet. A pair of swans - Saint-Saëns’ (from “The Carnival of the Animals,’’ delineated by cellist Jolene Kessler and harpist Ina Zdorovetchi with gentle expressiveness), and Tchaikovsky’s (the Act II Waltz from “Swan Lake,’’ an encore) - completed the animal delegation.

The evening’s main drawback, ironically, was the location, or at least the statehouse logic that put Storrow Drive a mere stone’s throw from the Hatch Shell; the traffic’s white-noise rumble and the necessitated amplification robbed the sound of forgiving warmth. The concert proper closed with the rather more militant environmentalism of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,’’ and it was satisfying to imagine Olmsted’s ghost rising up, “Fantasia’’-style, to smite the horseless carriage.

That would teach them.




Keith Powers, the Edge. 
"Hub show a natural tribute to urban park-itect."
Boston Herald, August 31, 2009

There could be no more fitting tribute to the legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted than a concert by the Boston Landmarks Orchestra on the banks of the Charles at the Hatch Shell.

The man who created the Emerald Necklace and dozens of other famous public spaces (such as New York’s Central Park) will be celebrated by the BLO in “The Story of Frederick Law Olmsted,” a newly commissioned work by Thomas Oboe Lee, Wednesday evening on the Esplanade. The concert, like the entire BLO summer series, is free.

Cambridge-based Lee is a familiar face on the Boston music scene. His background defines “polyglot”: born in Beijing, years in Brazil as a jazz flutist, educated at New England Conservatory and Harvard, and a longtime professorship at Boston College. His compositional catalog includes more than 100 published works in nearly all genres, and his music has been used for ballet and opera.

“The Story of Frederick Law Olmsted” is set for a narrator and orchestra, the latest in a series of new works written for children on historical subjects such as Ben Franklin (composed by Patricia Van Ness), Paul Revere (Julian Wachner) and John Adams (Anthony DiLorenzo).

“All of our commissions are important locally,” said conductor and orchestra founder Charles Ansbacher. “As has been the case with the whole series of commissions, it’s not a children’s story, it’s a narration appropriate for children. Thomas is a very skilled composer, and I asked him to do a piece like ‘Peter and the Wolf,’ where a narrator tells the story and the instruments give it color.”

Nancy Stevenson, granddaughter of the politician Adlai Stevenson, is writing a book about Olmsted and supplied the text for the piece.

“The narration is the whole thing,” Lee said. “The text comes first, and the music follows. When the story shows Olmsted enjoying nature, the music is pastoral. When the construction in Boston for the Emerald Necklace starts, the music is much more agitated. Olmsted spends quite a bit of time walking around Boston, and there are march-like settings for that. And in the finale, which talks about Olmsted’s vision of public spaces all across the land, there is a kind of triumphal fanfare.” Lee says the piece lasts about 15 minutes, in one continuous movement. “I avoided a slow movement,” he said, pointing out that such a section might be inappropriate for children. “This is not a sorrowful story at all - it celebrates someone who loved the outdoors and wanted public spaces to be for everyone.”

“We believe in collaboration,” Ansbacher said, noting that this concert is a joint venture with the Esplanade Association and other environmental groups. “There is a communal kind of sharing in an outdoor event like this. It is the sort of experience that Olmsted envisioned.”



David Weininger, Music Review.  "Premieres - and a farewell - for BMOP"
Boston Globe, May 25, 2009

A harp concerto by Thomas Oboe Lee, ". . . bisbigliando . . .," gave a solo turn to BMOP's excellent harpist, Ina Zdorovetchi. This was the most accessible of the evening's offerings, an assemblage of languorous melodies and light textures that occasionally recalled Gil Evans's classic arrangements for Miles Davis.



Reviewed by Robert Schulslaper, “Thomas Oboe Lee: The Visconti-Sforza Tarot Cards and Other Works • Sally Pinkas & Evan Hirsch • Arsis CD 148”  Fanfare Magazine, Issue 31:6 (July/August, 2008)

Thomas Oboe Lee is a name I’ve known for a long time, but I hadn’t heard any of his music until now. I’m glad to have finally had the opportunity, as this is a very enjoyable CD, filled with charming, exciting, humorous, and even “serious” music. Although contemporary by definition, being composed in the 20th and early 21st centuries, this is not experimental or unpleasantly atonal music, even if Schoenberg inspired some of it. Before saying more, a little background. Commissioned to write a piece for another two-piano team (the Reed sisters), Lee was looking around for an idea on which to base his composition. Reading a book about numerology at the time, he was drawn to the number 22, which happens to be the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet as well as the number of major arcana cards in a Tarot deck. Also, the double digits could be interpreted to represent a piano duo. Eureka! Now that he’d found his inspiration, all that remained was to write corresponding music for each of the cards. Although the colorful illustrations of the Visconti-Sforza deck Lee owns are from Italy, much of the music has a Spanish flavor. Lee also cites Chopin, Nazareth, and Gottschalk as prominent influences. I could hear Milhaud’s Scaramouche, in spirit if not exact quotation; a taste of Bachian counterpoint; two tangos; perhaps a Mexican mariachi band; a Russian march; and some effective pieces built on repetition, although sometimes this went on a little too long for my taste. In the pieces influenced by Chopin, Lee knowingly adopts that composer’s familiar style, retaining enough characteristics to make it recognizable, but adding a personal melodic stamp. The Nazareth impressions, however, are so accurate that a listener could easily be fooled into thinking they’re genuine.
 
Like the Visconti-Sforza set, Lee’s Twenty-Nine Fireflies for solo piano (Hirsch and Pinkas play several each) has an interesting numerical story to tell. Lee uses Chopin’s 24 Preludes as models, adding five pieces patterned after Schoenberg—the father of atonality— to bring the total up to 29. Why 29? Chopin and Schoenberg are perhaps not a likely combination, but in this case, they owe their proximity to Lee’s discovery (thanks to Donald Martino) that composers of atonal music have 29 tetra-chords at their disposal, hence Twenty-Nine Fireflies. In each of the five books of Fireflies a Schoenbergian piece is followed by five revamped Chopin Preludes. Sally Pinkas and Evan Hirsch (dedicatees of the fifth book) perform 11 of the Fireflies stylishly, with great verve and imagination: they’re as adept in the “Schoenberg” as in the “Chopin,” and those who know the original preludes will have fun comparing the pastiches to their counterparts.
 
There were two CDs by the Hirsch-Pinkas piano duo in my latest batch of review copies, the other devoted to piano music by Daniel Pinkham (Arsis 163, perhaps reviewed in this issue), and both revealed the performers to be virtuosos with a flair for contemporary music. After hearing their CDs, I wanted to see the scores and play the music myself. I took additional pleasure in the quality of the recording, which is warm and detailed without being too close, and places the superb instrument realistically in a spacious soundstage. Recommended to all who love the piano and its ever-expanding repertoire.



Reviewed by Peter Burwasser, “Thomas Oboe Lee: The Visconti-Sforza Tarot Cards and Other Works • Sally Pinkas & Evan Hirsch • Arsis CD 148”  Fanfare Magazine, Issue 31:5 (May/June, 2008)

On the basis of this selection, it would be safe to call Thomas Oboe Lee a miniaturist. The longest single selection runs for three and a half minutes. The two-piano work The Visconti-Sforza Tarot Cards is, as the title suggest, a series of vignettes, 22 in all, inspired by tarot cards, such as The Old Man, Death, and Love. This highly entertaining collection reveals a composer of no little wit and dramatic sensibility. Each tarot card depiction is precise and characteristic, in the manor of, say, the Debussy Preludes. His language is populist but not pandering, with plenty of jazz and Latin flavors. The Fireflies are, in essence, homage to Chopin, which is appropriate for this composer, since Chopin was arguably the greatest miniaturist in musical history. The outlines of the Chopin Preludes, in particular, glow within the framework of Lee’s abstractions. Lee is a clever composer, but in the best sense. There is never a kind of “look Ma, no hands!” virtuosity here; rather, a nimble imagination producing joyful, ingratiating material. Lee is no youngster; he was born in China in 1945, lived in Brazil, and received his advanced musical education in America. It is significant that three of his teachers were William McKinley, George Russell, and Gunther Schuller, all composers with intensive involvement in the realm of jazz. I’ll keep an ear open for more of his music.
 
The husband and wife team Pinkas and Hirsch bring this delightful material to life with their usual panache and skill. They split the duties for the Fireflies, but I cannot easily tell where one drops off and the other begins. We Fanfare reviewers slog through an awful lot of earnest, yet mediocre material. This release stands out with a sparkle and intelligence that redeems this gig. I commend this music, dear readers, with heartfelt enthusiasm.
 


Matthew Guerrieri, Music Review. 
"'Diaries' has some very fine passages."
Boston Globe, September 17, 2007

Arthur Crew Inman poured 17 million words into his 155-volume diary. In "The Inman Diaries," premiered on Friday by Intermezzo Opera, composer Thomas Oboe Lee and librettist Jesse Martin seek to portray the man, but never quite square his logorrhea with opera's penchant for reading between the lines. With that many words, is there any room left for music to say what they can't?

The diary's abridged publication in 1985 confirmed Inman as one of literature's great obsessive eccentrics. He spent most of his life ensconced in a darkened Back Bay apartment, renting the surrounding flats to eliminate noise. Stories of everyday people hired to come talk to him filled the failed poet's journals; such visits frequently ended as sexual encounters, with the knowledge of his long-suffering wife, Evelyn. He shot himself in 1963.

The opera unfolds in self-contained scenes, juxtaposed snapshots rather than progressive revelations; Lee underscores each with repeated patterns that support a sort of heightened recitative, hewing closely to the natural cadence of speech. It puts the text in relief, but Martin's libretto, much of it drawn from Inman's writing, is prosaic and talky instead of lyrical, better suited to speaking than singing. And all the characters share similar melodic and rhythmic contours; perhaps it's meant to reflect their appropriation into Inman's diaristic voice, but it dampens any conflict.

Evelyn (mezzo-soprano Gale Fuller, whose voice bloomed as the evening went on) has an affair with Cyrus Pike, Inman's longtime doctor (Intermezzo founder John Whittlesey, ardently dignified), but the tension is ameliorated by Pike's devotion to his patient, an unlikely friendship that's more postulated than portrayed. Many of Inman's less benign opinions - his admiration for Hitler, his rabid hatred of FDR, his race prejudice - are related by other characters, mitigating shock with distance and, sometimes, comedy.

His womanizing is presented as a foible, not a compulsion; with each female caller, the music turns Hollywood suave, an initially delicious touch that eventually seems too genial. Veteran tenor Ray Bauwens, making his Intermezzo debut as Inman, was indefatigably entertaining, but the character's droll embrace of both his visitors and his own indignant petulance belie the demons of a man driven into darkness and isolation.

Intermezzo is an invaluable champion of new opera: "The Inman Diaries" is its sixth premiere in five seasons. And there are some fine things in the work. Lee coaxes some rich sounds from the seven-piece orchestra (conducted with sturdy clarity by James Busby); he has a flair for gently tipping simple, triadic folk- and hymn-like harmonies into the more melancholy opulence of classic American popular song.

The text-setting is superb, every word distinct. Andrew Ryker's clean, unobtrusive staging keeps the drama in focus. And Intermezzo has recruited a solid cast of local talent. Particularly notable was tenor Jason McStoots as Inman's sometime handyman Billy - his second-act duet with Bauwens, the two reading Billy's farewell letter to Inman, was the musical high point. But it's indicative that the letter's gratitude is surprising, given what little we've seen of their relationship.

Most crucially, we never feel Inman's extraordinary self-seclusion, the formidable barriers he erected between himself and the world. The music sympathetically smooths the rough edges - it blunts the disquieting power of the diaries, the awkward torrent of Inman's language pulling you farther into his closed world than you really wanted to go.



Kilian Melloy,
Music Review. "The Inman Diaries" by Thomas Oboe Lee (music) and Jesse J. Martin (libretto)
EDGE Boston, September 16, 2007

Arthur Crew Inman, the program notes to Intermezzo’s opera The Inman Diaries tell us, was a Boston recluse who shut himself away from 1919 - 1963, devoting himself to a diary that grew to 17 million words. From all that verbiage, has sprung several fruits: a two-volume edition of his famously long diary, edited by Harvard professor of literature Daniel Aaron, a play (Camera Obscura) by Lorenzo DeStefano, and a documentary film, From A Darkened Room, also by DeStefano. There is something primal and promising in Inman’s retreat into darkness; from those shadows, and all those pages of Inman’s diary, composer Thomas Oboe Lee distills a marvelous music.

This production, the sixth to be commissioned by Intermezzo during its six-year history, played for three days only this past weekend at the Tower Auditorium of the Massachusetts College of Art, at 621 Huntington Avenue. The players of the piece--Ray Bauwens as Inman, Gale Fuller as his dissatisfied wife Evelyn, Sepp Hammer as the treacherous Danish driver, Otto, and John Whittlesey as the even more audaciously treacherous family doctor, Cyrus--were all in fine voice, with Hammer seeming to sport the most powerful singing voice of all: he seemed to be restraining himself so as not to overwhelm the others.

The small orchestra did first-rate work, with James Busby conducting.

The lighting was moody, affecting, sometimes mysterious: the set, with gemlike islands of furniture scattered about a space defined by heavy black curtains (fitting for Inman, who prized quite and employed heavy drapes to shut out light and muffle sound) was like a collage from memory, or a scrapbook come to fully dimensional life; thank William A. Fregosi for both the lighting and the set.

The libretto by Jesse J. Martin, drawn as it was from the two-volume abridged version of Inman’s 155-volume document, works to compress Inman’s life and writings into a coherent, concise, and shapely work of art. Martin faces a twofold, perhaps threefold, challenge here, as he aims to explore Inman’s extremely insular life, sketching in the contradictions of a man who wished fervently to be a famous diarist and yet chose to live like a hermit. Wisely, Martin adopts a view of Inman as witness to the trends and events of the 20th Century.

But the dramatic architecture of the 20th Century, as monumental and monstrous as it was, is given only a glance in this work, which concentrates far more fully on Inman himself. We hear about Inman’s contempt for Roosevelt, and this tells us something about his character in and of itself, as does his hesitant admiration for Hitler; but aside from a few straightforward polemics, and a conversation over a chessboard with an African American woman about racial equality (he plays the white pieces, she the black, but even this touch comes to naught when the chess men end up scattered across the floor), it seems that those heavy drapes mute the sounds of financial collapse, armies on the march, and civic progress as much as they screen out any any other external noise (save that of the Prudential being built, a cacophony that finally proved too much for Inman; he took his own life in 1963).

The diarist needed to have something to write about, of course, and Inman decided that if he couldn’t bring himself top face the wider world, then the wider world would have to come to him. The opera reflects how Inman placed ads in the paper offering to pay people to come and talk to him about their lives: this fascinating twist is charged with dramatic possibility, especially given Inman’s habit of seducing his lady visitors. But in the execution--and perhaps in the interests of time?--we see less of the lives that Inman explores (and in some sense exploits) than we might like.

What we do see carries a charge of moral ambiguity tinged with madness. A young woman named Therese (Erica Brookhyser) describes her first orgasm to Inman, and it’s a sly, if somewhat ribald, comment on his character’s mix of avid interest and divorcement from the world that when she sums up with the words, "I came," his puzzled response is to wonder where she’d been.

Scenes like this leave us primed for some sort of armchair adventure into the changing sexual mores of the century, and we do get a glimpse into the mindset of the times when Inman muses that his diaries are meant to house a grimy, total truth of sorts, to hold nothing back, that they will shock future generations (if only he’d known that the sorts of antics he got up to would serve us not as fodder for daytime chat shows). When the local Watch and Ward Society catch wind of what Inman’s up to, the opera charges briefly into a nasty power play which Dr. Pike describes after the fact. But the plot is entirely taken over in short order by Inman’s discovery that Evelyn and Dr. Pike are having an affair. The arguments and suspicions that follow are mundane; even Inman’s observation that he had encouraged his wife to seek other lovers (just not the good doctor!) fails to spark, and the stifling confines of Inman’s life seem to close in on the story.

Even this too-familiar territory might have been beautified with high-flown language (that, too would be fitting, for Inman was a failed poet), but Martin restricts himself to a curiously flat vernacular that sometimes seems at odds with the lyrical quality of the music. The libretto consists of straight-on conversational exchanges; there are no flights of imagery or metaphor, no nesting of emotions or complex interleavings of meaning. Otto might have some of the most striking lines when he threatens, "Firing me could bring trouble to your door. Firing me could make you a laughingstock front-page story."

But the force of brute, thuggish threats perhaps oughtn’t get place of pride, lyrically speaking. When Therese is describing her orgasm and compares it to "one of those toy buzzers people shock you with as a joke," it’s a letdown: the moment cries out for more--more passion, more lust, more excitement by way of entranced, transporting language. Martin may be sticking with the words in the diary; if so, that seems something of a shame. The language is that of prose, of novels, maybe even of Mamet plays, but it seems out of place here, set as it is into Lee’s music. Is it a comment on the inadequacy of words to sum up the experiences of a lifetime, even a lifetime lived within the darkened confines of Inman’s apartment walls?

The most honest, passionate relationship in the opera is that between Inman and the building’s handyman, Billy (Jason McStoots), who takes a liking to the shut-in, even lingering to tinker with his wheelchair (which seems to be an affectation: Inman is frisky enough when it comes to his female guests, and other than his pounding migraines--which the music mimics on occasion with profound, booming percussion--he seems to have no need for a wheelchair). When Billy moves away to marry, Inman takes it personally, declaring himself abandoned.

Indeed, this cry becomes the heart of the piece, as one by one the loves Inman has brought into connection with his own peel away; his wife leaves after 28 years of marriage, Dr. Pike dies, and though it’s not specified, you can’t help but conclude that even Kathy O’Connor (Kristen Watson), the young woman for whom Inman expresses a paternal love, finds her way out of Inman’s tightly circumscribed life and into one of her own. In the end, with the noise of the Prudential building going up next door driving him to the edge, and no one left to stop his rush toward oblivion, Inman puts a gun to his head; the opera stops there, feeling not like a tragedy but like a passing glance into something strange, a little repugnant, and yet (in the way imagination has of filling in details) colorful and compelling.



David Weininger, Classical Notes. "One man's 17 million words inspire an opera."
Boston Globe, September 14, 2007

A man sits in a dark room in his Back Bay apartment and writes. He is writing a diary, one that will eventually grow to some 17 million words that cover in exhaustive detail his life, times, and individual pathologies, as well as those of several people he has invited into his gloomy domicile to talk.

This may not sound like promising material for drama, let alone opera. Yet the diary of Arthur Crew Inman, a notorious recluse and one of Boston's great eccentrics, has already been transformed into a play: "Camera Obscura" by Lorenzo DeStefano. Tonight the chamber opera company Intermezzo premieres "The Inman Diaries," an opera by Thomas Oboe Lee based on the play and on Inman's colossal diary.

Lee, a biography fan, stumbled on a two-volume edition of the diary while browsing in a Cambridge bookstore; the complete edition runs to 155 volumes. The further he read, the more Lee thought, "This thing might work," he recalls by phone from his home in Cambridge.

Born in 1895 to wealthy Southerners, Inman suffered some sort of breakdown while at Haverford College. Though he always claimed his ailments were physical rather than mental, he developed serious phobias to light and noise, and he spent virtually his entire life in a heavily curtained room on Garrison Street. (He also rented the three surrounding apartments to ensure quiet.)

His family's wealth made it unnecessary for him to work, so he could concentrate on his life's ambition, which was to become famous. Having failed to secure his immortality through writing poetry, he set out in 1919 to keep a journal of himself and his times, complete and completely candid.

There was an obvious problem: How does a recluse and self-described "semi-invalid" gather material beyond his own penchants and propensities? Inman hit on the idea of advertising in Boston papers for "readers": men and women who would come to his apartment and tell him about their lives. Their stories are mundane, exotic, tedious, and often weirdly absorbing; they also offer a fascinating portrait of a world and a city that were experiencing profound and often calamitous changes.

The readers allowed Inman pleasures both vicarious and immediate. (He seduced some of the female participants, a situation his long-suffering wife knew of and accepted.) And the readers, along with a succession of doctors and domestic servants, fill out Inman's strange world in a way that makes it suitable for dramatic treatment.

"For an opera character, here's this guy who's larger than life in terms of what he did with his diary," says Lee, who acknowledges that the diary makes for disturbing reading, as randomly chosen quotations bear out: "Last night, lying awake, I was wondering just why I do fall so thoroughly for young girls"; "My Lord, but that Hitler is an astute man."

Lee says he tried to find depth to Inman's character, driven by his mania for recording everything in his sight. "What I try to portray in the opera is not just a portrait of this creepy guy, but I also try to find the humanity in him - this complex person who in many ways was honest with himself, at least," he says.

To create "The Inman Diaries," Lee, librettist Jesse Martin, and Intermezzo artistic director John Whittlesey sat down with a one-volume edition of the diary called "From a Darkened Room," as well as DeStefano's play, and plotted the sequence of scenes. The action is largely concerned with Inman's interactions with his motley supporting crew, though Martin's text also interweaves his thoughts on current issues, such as his contempt for Roosevelt's New Deal and unease at the prospect of the new Prudential Center across the street from his apartment.

Lee composed the entire 100-minute opera in about four months. The chamber orchestra has seven instruments, and there are nine vocal roles. Lee's music is tonal and liberally spiced with elements of jazz, which lies deep in his musical background, as well as inflections of blues, tango, and bossa nova. "American composers don't appreciate the advanced harmonic language jazz has provided for this culture, and I think it's to their detriment," he says.

Inman committed suicide in 1963. The legacy he left is troubling and unwieldy, yet also strangely foresighted. In an age when people spill their entire lives into blogs and YouTube videos, Inman looks almost like a prophet. "The Inman Diaries" gives his confessions another chance to reach the public he so desperately craved.



Andrew L. Pincus, "Modest pleasures."
The Berkshire Eagle, October 17, 2006

Nature was most conspicuous in the commissioned piece, the String Quartet No. 10, "The Berkshires," by Thomas Oboe Lee, a Bostonian who serves as an informal composer-in-residence with MusicWorks. The 20-minute piece consists of four movements, each depicting a Berkshire scene visited during a 24-hour period.

The writing is unmistakably pictorial. In the first movement, "Morning on the Appalachian Trail," a marchlike theme evokes trekking. In the second movement, dancers cavort in the rhythms of "Afternoon at Jacob's Pillow." In "Night Falls on the Housatonic River," the two violins twine in lonesome melody over a cello drone (the river?) and a night bird's repeated call in the viola. "Dawn over Stockbridge Bowl" takes place amid the gentle lapping of waves against a dreamy backdrop.

Lee's writing in these vignettes is determinedly tonal and ingratiating, with little of the counterpoint and development that are standard for a string quartet. In its directness and simplicity, the music could be played for children.
 


Reviewed by Colin Clarke for Fanfare Magazine, “An All That Jazz  • The Oregon String Quartet • Koch 7672 (67:16)” 

Subtitled “Jazz and Rock Influences in the contemporary American String Quartet,” this adventurous disc describes a most enjoyable journey through territory that spans mimimalism as well as the promised jazz and rock. The recording is very close, perhaps to emphasize the upfront and personal nature of the experience, making the sound almost preternaturally bright.

In its activities, the Oregon Quartet orients itself towards new music, and it shows in the way it sounds so much at home in these five works. Albert Glinsky wrote the Canandaigua Quartet in 1996, including folk elements in the already heady jazz and rock mix while taking Bartók as a stylistic background basis. Minimalism features in the energetic first and third movements (the finale is a furious dance), framing a beautiful, morose Nocturne that rises in intensity as it progresses. The players prove to be as effective in reflective music as in the brightly colored, driven movements.

Morango was written for the Kronos Quartet. The composer, Thomas Oboe Lee, painstakingly notates every jazz inflection so that classically trained interpreters have an entrance point to this music. Over an ostinato cello, the remaining instrumentalists spin their lines. The seven-minute work is astonishingly laid back; it is no surprise to learn that it was an instant hit.

Victor Steinhardt’s Figment is contrastingly restless. Steinhart is an experienced composer (whose works include titles such as Ein Heldenboogie). Interestingly, Steinhardt has the two violinists of the Oregon Quartet change to viola, so the work is pervaded by the warmth of that instrument. David Baker also changes the instrumentation, adding a solo jazz violin to the traditional quartet lineup for his Sonata. Baker keeps to traditional notation for the quartet, while allowing the solo jazz violinist a greater measure of improvisation. The first movement features inviting harmonies of great warmth; the second, entitled Song/Blues, has a lovely swing while pizzicato strumming features in the ensuing Calypso. A long cadenza in the finale for the soloist works well, despite the close and dry soundstage it is allocated.

Geigezoid, by Fritz Gearhart, returns to the world of the opening piece. The string quartet scoring is only the latest version for a work that has seen instrumentations of three violins and coffee can, then a larger version that included rhythm section and keyboard. Again, the solo violin has improvised elements while the other parts are fully notated. Can I hear some hillbilly influence here? The final laugh of delight from the quartet is entirely understandable.

Definitely a different take on the string-quartet medium. Well worth investigating.



Roslyn Sulcas, "An Ambitious Eclecticism in a Procession of Troupes."

New York Times, October 4, 2005

"Morango ... almost a tango," by the duo Tapage, held its own on Friday night between the superb Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell in Alvin Ailey's solo "Cry" and the New York City Ballet in George Balanchine's "Variations pour une Porte et un Soupir."  Performed to a sober string quartet by Thomas Oboe Lee (played live onstage), Mari Fujibayashi and Olivia Rosenkrantz pull tap dance into an austerely contemporary world, using their rhythms as a counterpoint to the music with graceful and impassive authority.



T.J. Medrek, "Landmarks' fifth season kickoff out of this world."
Boston Herald, July 9, 2005

It would have been swell if the Boston Landmarks Orchestra could have opened its fifth season of free, mostly outdoor summer concerts at the originally scheduled location: Boston Common's Parkman Bandstand. But last night, nature had wetter plans, so the concert moved to its rain location, the Church of the Covenant.

Of course, the orchestra, founded and conducted by Charles Ansbacher, prides itself on performing in, well, landmark locations. The Newbury Street church is nothing if not that, so at least the orchestra's mission to combine ``site and sound,'' as Ansbacher likes to say, was happily preserved. The church's overripe acoustics meant a loss of some musical detail, but you could argue that's still preferable to the amplification that outdoor concerts require.

Ansbacher kicked things off with a rousing rendition of E.E. Bagley's ``National Emblem March,'' followed by a fine, no-nonsense performance of Beethoven's celebrated Fifth Symphony - for the Landmarks' fifth season, of course, while the program's second half featured Gustav Holst's ``The Planets.''

Inspired by the astrological characteristics of Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, ``The Planets'' is an unsubtle yet undeniably effective sonic spectacular that gives orchestras a chance to really show their stuff. Here the Landmarks did just that, to their audience's obvious delight. The otherworldly (well, of course!) vocals of the ``Neptune'' finale were beautifully provided by women from the Boston chorus Coro Allegro.

Of course, when Holst was writing this piece 90 years ago, Pluto hadn't been discovered yet. That gave Ansbacher and company the idea to commission a concluding ``Pluto'' movement from noted Boston composer Thomas Oboe Lee.

Lee's ``Pluto'' was fully in keeping with the overtly romantic essence of the Holst. But, of course, it had a more modern sensibility and, frankly, a bit more musical depth than its illustrious predecessor. It made me wonder what Lee might come up with for a planet cycle all his own.




Richard Dyer, Classical Notes. "Composer Lee completes a space odyssey."
Boston Globe, July 8, 2005

When Gustav Holst composed his most popular work, ''The Planets," from 1914 to 1916, Pluto had not yet been discovered. Pluto swam into Clyde Tombaugh's telescope in 1930, but Holst displayed no interest in composing an additional movement for his suite.
 
As part of the Boston Landmarks Orchestra's fifth anniversary celebration this summer, founder/conductor Charles Ansbacher decided to commission a ''Pluto" movement from Cambridge composer Thomas Oboe Lee. The premiere performances are on a program with Holst's ''Planets," tonight and tomorrow night at 8 at the Parkman Bandstand on the Boston Common (free).

Lee remembers his first conversation with Ansbacher. ''He came to hear the Civic Symphony of Boston play the premiere of my 'Utopia Parkway' this season, and liked it. He told me, 'You are the right person to write 'Pluto.' I thought at first he was talking about Walt Disney's Pluto, but when I understood what he wanted, I thought this would be fun to do."

Lee is not the first person to write an addendum to Holst's suite. In 2000, the British composer Colin Matthews wrote ''Pluto, the Renewer," which has been widely performed in England and recorded. Former Boston composer Julian Wachner tried his hand at it in 2003 for the New Haven Symphony, adding movements for the recently discovered ''Planet X" and an epilogue, ''The Sun." There are also works by Brad Spitz and New Zealand's Gareth Farr, who must be a free spirit, because his publisher's website describes him as ''composer, percussionist . . . and drag queen."

Lee's eight-minute movement is called ''Pluto, Lord of the Underworld." The composer says it begins with a fanfare, ''followed by the sounds of the three-headed beast Cerberus growling at people who want to get into the underworld. Then there's a waltz, inspired by Liszt's 'Mephisto Waltz,' and soon Pluto is deliriously dancing." A quiet passage follows as Persephone appears, ''and then the fanfare from the opening comes back to end the piece with a big bang."
Lee says he listened to Holst's piece many times, and there are ideas or techniques that connect ''Pluto" to it, but ''I also wanted to write a kind of music Holst did not use, and to make my movement different. Holst doesn't have a waltz, so I made one, in a texture different from his, to complement and add to what he did."




Mark Kanny, "Sonic Canvasses."  
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, "Scenes from Arts-burgh," March 1, 2005

Paintings are mute and music has no essential visual component, but the two art forms have sparked each other for centuries. The Andy Warhol Museum was the perfect site Feb. 21 for a smart update of Modest Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" that the Pittsburgh Symphony had played the preceding weekend.

"Sonic Canvasses: Pictures for a Composition" was conceived by symphony co-principal bassoonist David Sogg, offering five contemporary compositions inspired by the visual arts, including two world premieres. The program benefited from the video projection of the specific inspiring images.

Warhol director Tom Sokolowski observed in a discussion about the two art forms that "Andy Warhol Sez" by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul Moravec -- one of the world premieres -- was not "Warholic." Indeed, Moravec's music is direct and sincere rather than ironic. But he did use some of Warhol's oxymoronic declarations, such as "I am a deeply superficial person," as the basis for appealing music.

The most musically impressive piece was Thomas Oboe Lee's "Yo Picasso," taking the mood of five paintings as a departure for musical eloquence.



David Cleary, "Brockton orchestra dazzles Boston audience
."  
The Sunday Enterprise, Brockton Today, February 27, 2005

Reviewers rarely get a chance to critque a concert given twice by the same ensemble.  Friday night's Brockton Symphony Orchestra "Showcase Spectacular" presentation in Boston's Jordan Hall, a repeat of the February 13 program at Brockton High School, provided such an unusual opportunity.

For the most part, Boston brought out the best in our hometown worthies ...

It's a good sign when a new piece continues to impress on subsequent hearings.  Thus it was with the "Concerto for Orchestra" by the Brockton Symphony's current composer-in-residence, Thomas Oboe Lee.  This time around, one got a good feel for the work's careful ear for long-range structural balance and deft handling of non-standard formats.  Its eloquent manner of speech and masterful orchestration remained persuasive.

[Conductor] Cohler and the group gave it terrifically well, able to go far beyond mere nuts-and-bolts mastery to a lived-in confidence that made the piece soar.  




David Cleary, "Brockton Symphony does very well with dynamic new properties."  
The Enterprise, February 15, 2005

Sunday's performance of work by composer-in-residence Thomas Oboe Lee and a re-scored "Rite of Spring" were something special.

The only fault to find these days with the Brockton Symphony Orchestra's programming is that they rarely play recent music. Sunday afternoon's concert at Brockton High School saw the group rectify this oversight - and for good measure, they even threw in a landmark masterpiece from the early 20th century.

Thomas Oboe Lee, the symphony's composer-in-residence, saw his freshly written "Concerto for Orchestra" receive its world premiere. Its five, interlinked movements sport subtitles derived from Thelonius Monk tunes, but apart from some jazz-tinged chords in the chorale-like central movement, there's little here that overtly suggests Monk's stylistic approach.

In fact, this concerto is a fine example of a "new tonalist" selection, a contemporary piece that uses triads instead of gritty dissonances as its harmonic basis. Lee's genius here lies in making this sound world both inimitable and charming in the best sense of the word. Imaginative, appealing, and substantive, it's a fine listen.


There are two reasons that semi-professional orchestras rarely attempt Igor Stravinsky's watershed, turn-of-the-century opus "The Rite of Spring" - its instrumental forces are gargantuan and its performance demands are daunting. The former problem can now be solved by utilization of Jonathan McPhee's capable rescoring for standard-sized ensemble, which was heard Sunday afternoon.

It is a major tribute to conductor Jonathan Cohler and his charges that the presentation they gave was for all practical purposes flawless.

Apart from a few, minor balance concerns and a single, brief, shaky ensemble moment early on, this was a truly splendid achievement any orchestra would be proud to call their own - exciting, powerful, vigorous, primal.




Richard Dyer, Classical Notes. "A strong premiere."
Boston Globe, November 26, 2004

News that the Fifth Symphony by Boston College composer Thomas Oboe Lee was his response to the quirky, surprising boxed collages by the American artist Joseph Cornell (1903-73) quickened interest in the premiere Sunday afternoon by conductor Max Hobart and the Civic Symphony Orchestra of Boston because Lee has often proved a quirky, surprising composer.

The five-movement work has its moments, but it also has longueurs. The best moments come in the first and fourth movements. The opening, subtitled "3708 Utopia Parkway, Flushing, NY" (the address where Cornell spent most of his life), is a cheerful subway piece depicting the artist's regular trips to Manhattan to scrounge raw materials for his art. It's Leroy Anderson meets Philip Glass, although Anderson would have known when to stop and get off. The fourth movement, a cancan, is delightfully off-kilter. Two of the other movements are a little fey and self-conscious. The apotheosis-finale, a setting of a hymn by Mary Baker Eddy in broad, Bruckner-Adagio style, seems a bit pretentious here.

Lee has far more of a sweet tooth than Cornell, whose work has an unsettling edge the composer has avoided in his skillful but docile music. Hobart and the Civic Symphony offered a strong, basic performance of the work.



Keith Powers, "Symphony admiringly performs Civic duties."
Boston Herald, November 22, 2004


Sadly, in Boston's cluttered music scene, major events sometimes receive only minor attention. Such was the case at Jordan Hall yesterday, when a small crowd witnessed conductor Max Hobart's Civic Symphony Orchestra present a world premiere by Thomas Oboe Lee and a bravura interpretation of Chopin's second concerto by Michael Lewin.

Lee's symphony bears the fanciful title "Utopia Parkway," paying tribute to artist Joseph Cornell, who lived at that address. Lee explored his interest in Cornell - who worked in box assemblages of found materials - with a densely programmatic but accessible piece that investigates many of the artist's polymath interests: birds, Hollywood, ballet and Christian Science.

A substantial composition of five movements, "Utopia Parkway" leans heavily on percussion to support lush, tuneful melodies that get passed around the orchestra. Each movement bears a distinct character. The first relies on ubiquitous drumming that underpins sweeping major-key melodies in the strings. The second, marked Lento, offers a difficult harp solo (bravely engaged by Barbara Poesch-Edrich) that introduces the work's only dissonance, with marimba, horns and low strings creating a hushed meditation in support. The third movement features an inventive horn and percussion duet; the fourth, a burlesque polka for comic relief. The finale comprises an esoteric theme and variations on Lee's setting of a Mary Baker Eddy hymn.

"Utopia Parkway," while not outwardly virtuosic, makes a strong first impression, and deserves further hearings to gauge its depth. With Hobart's disciplined interpretation, it's off to a good start.




Helen York, "Watching the 'River' flow."
Bangor Daily News, October 25, 2004


There was no red carpet, and very few, if any, paparazzi, but the world premiere of Thomas Oboe Lee's symphony, "The Penobscot River," was attended Saturday night by a river of people, streaming into the Bangor Auditorium. And in the music, and the coming together of the performers and the audience, the event also seemed to generate a river of community spirit.

For this special concert, in which a brand new symphony was presented to the ears of the world for the very first time, the musicians of the Bangor Symphony Orchestra were joined by 300 singers from the University Of Maine Singers, the University of Maine Oratorio Society and the Bangor High School Chorus, as well as by 10 members of the Robinson Ballet.

Speaking about his symphony, composer Lee likened this first performance to childbirth.  "I don't have any children," he said, " but writing a symphony like this one is like having a child. You work about nine months, it's very hard work, and then this new thing, this new being, is out in the world and has a life of its own."

According to BSO staff, this project was actually in the works for nearly four years, beginning with an application to the American Composers Forum, which was commissioning a series of pieces reflecting the rich cultural history and diversity of different regions in the United States. After the selection process, the composer had to familiarize himself with the history of the area, the music had to be written, and the words for the choruses to sing had to be chosen. After months of work, Lee delivered his score to the BSO.

Lee laughs a bit sheepishly, "I was very behind. I was about a month late delivering the score. They nearly disowned me!"   The score delivered, the orchestra, singers and dancers all rehearsed feverishly on their own, only coming together for a full rehearsal within a day of the public performance.

Before the concert, hopes were high. "We're making history," said BSO Executive Director Susan Jonason, "When you get a whole community behind you with all the organizations, all the talent and all that wisdom guiding you, it's just an amazing process."

BSO president Jim Goff looked up at the bleachers above him and said, "As I stand here, the balconies are filling, this is extraordinary! We're so pleased that we were able to fund this event with the help of our supporters as a free concert for the people of Bangor and the whole area. This is going to be a remarkable evening."

Jerry Kaufman, a longtime local supporter of the arts, said, "Hopefully this will let people come and enjoy music and see the classics as not something that is stuffy or for the upper crust, but as something that can be enjoyed and seen by a wide variety of people."

And then there was the matter of the first game of the World Series. Audience member Stan Freeman was looking forward to an evening of excellent music but voiced his concerns, " I wonder who we could convince to pull some strings and get the Red Sox scores posted somewhere during the concert!"

The scoreboards in the Auditorium dark and scoreless, the orchestra began the evening with a rousing version of the Star Spangled Banner followed by a performance of "Roman Carnival" by Hector Berlioz. Finally it was time to hear Lee's "Symphony No. 6: The Penobscot River."

Addressing the audience of about 2,500 before the piece, the composer spoke about Bangor's long history as a town of cultural diversity and support for the arts, especially during the heyday of its logging boom, back in the 19th century. "This symphony is about that period of richness and life."

At this point, the combined orchestra and choruses began the about 30-minute piece, a multitextured, richly layered work, alternating choral movements with movements featuring dance.

Scott Burditt, orchestra manager and horn player, speaking about his reaction to the new piece, said, "It really grows on you. And the poetry is certainly centered on Maine. The music goes along with the text beautifully, gorgeous music that fits the words well."

Bill Miller, percussionist with the BSO for nearly 48 years, added, "As I listen to it, I enjoy it more and more. It's really a learning experience. I'm sure the first time you heard Beethoven or Chopin, you didn't think it sounded that great. So tonight the audience will like it, but probably 10 years from now, the audience will like it even better."

Gesturing at the risers full of young singers from the local area, Miller said, "The most exciting part is all the young people, the youth of the community. What are they doing tonight? They are here making music. They're not getting into trouble on the corner somewhere. So the moral of the story is, get the youth involved in music, keep them busy and we'll all be better for it."

And for quite a few of the young people involved, this was the largest event they had ever been involved with. Jesse Dunham, a dancer with the Robinson Ballet for eight years, remarked, "We do 'The Nutcracker' every year, but this is probably the biggest audience we've ever had."

As happy audience member Margaret Mollison McIntosh said as she walked through piles of autumn leaves on the way to her car, "Stupendous, just outstanding!" Even Red Sox fan Freeman was delighted, exclaiming after the concert, "This was better than a baseball game!"

For those who missed hearing the symphony, it is not too late. Executive director Jonason promised, "We're taking it on tour, a reduced orchestration of it is going to go to Millinocket and Bucksport, the head and the mouth of the Penobscot, sometime during the winter. We are trying to coordinate it with the towns right now."



Richard Dyer, "Marimbas mesmerize in festive concert."
The Boston Globe, July 23, 2004

Zeltsman and Van Geem, who have recorded an album of marimba duets ("Pedro & Olga Learn 2 Dance") that was released at the concert, had the platform to themselves for the first half.  They played ... two big transcriptions: Van Geem's ingeniuos and evocative adaptation of Gershwin's three piano Preludes, and Nancy Zeltsman's adaptation of "Eight Tarot Cards," drawn from a 1997 suite for two pianos by Boston composer Thomas Oboe Lee.  A couple of the movements represented the sinister side of the cards - a spooky dirge for the death card, a valse triste for "The Empress."  The other movements are cheerful and virtuosic workouts based on various dance forms.



Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times, September 30, 2003

Bach was introduced by an odd travelogue: first, a pleasant three-minute invocation of festive Brazil in a recent piece, "Forró," by the Boston composer Thaoms Oboe Lee, that revealed a debt to Milhaud; next, another recent piece, Bright Sheng's "Postcards," this time evoking China."


Richard Buell, "Landmarks Orchestra keeps the bar high."
The Boston Globe, July 19, 2003

The newest Landmarks program is called "Ritmo Latino!"  And it included music by Manuel de Falla (Spain), Joaquin Rodrigo (Spain), Heitor Villa-Lobos (Brazil), Thomas Oboe Lee (United States), and Alberto Ginastera (Argentina) - all heavies, as to training, but decidedly populist in spirit and vocabulary when they wanted to be.   ...  

For the rest, there were Rodrigo's pretty and not overfamiliar orchestral triptych "Palillos y panderetas," some nostalgia-inducing Arthur Fiedler fare (dances by de Falla, Ginastera's "Malambo") and the premiere of "MAMBO!!!"  In this last piece, Lee makes generous use of lots of shaken rattle-ratttle, itchy-scratchy percussion instruments and runs a so-so but memorable little tune into the ground, almost --- as if intent on making you beg him to stop, but not just yet.


T.J. Medrek, "Landmarks' concert on Common delights."
Boston Herald, July 12, 2003

The elegant strumming of a young guitarist, a rollicking world premiere by a local composer and a big, bright full moon made Saturday's opening concert by the Boston Landmarks Orchestra on Boston Common a very special occasion.   The program generously delivered exactly what its title, "Ritmo Latino! Classical Sounds of Spain and Latin America," promised ...  

The world premiere, by Boston College faculty member Thomas Oboe Lee, was the aggressively titled "MAMBO!!!" It proved to be a bright, breezy party piece that the Boston Pops would be crazy not to snap up for its next season. Its catchy melody - a variation on a simple four-note sequence - and its persuasive percussiveness made it an instant audience hit.  


Reviewed by Hubert Culot, “Thomas Oboe Lee: Morango… almost a tango • String Quartet On B-flat • Seven Jazz Pieces • ART: arias & interludes • Hawthorne Str Qrt. • Koch 3.7452-2 HI  (64.03)”
MUSICWEB, June 2003
http://www.musicweb.uk.net/

Chinese-born Thomas Oboe Lee, who now teaches at Boston College, spent several years in Brazil before settling in the States. He studied with Gunther Schuller at the New England Conservatory (1972-1976), with Betsy Jolas at Tanglewood (1976) and with Earl Kim at Harvard University (1977-1981). Such varied background may partly explain his cosmopolitan approach; for, unlike that of some of his younger colleagues (Zhou Long, Bright Sheng, Chen Yi or Qigang Chen), his music seems more directly rooted in American or Western musical traditions than in Chinese musical past. That is anyway the impression I got when listening to this release of some of his works for string quartet. He admits the influence of many present-day musical trends, including some popular ones such as jazz and tango; but things are not really as simple as expected. In this respect the first work in this disc aptly illustrates Lee’s musical making. "Morango ... almost a tango" (note the second part of the title: almost) inevitably nods towards Latin America and the popular tango rhythms. This lovely piece opens with a dreamy ostinato played by the cello, clearly unrelated (at least directly) to tango, whereas the tango itself is rather hinted at than bluntly imitated. More remarkably still, as the other pieces here will also clearly demonstrate, the composer eschews any attempt at pastiche or parody. Rather his music, at least, in the pieces recorded here, pays sincere tribute to a number of musicians and musical styles that have obviously meant much to Lee.

This is quite evident, too, in the "Seven Jazz Pieces" which pay homage to Horace Silver, Carlos Jobim, Bill Evans and Jaco Pastorius by alluding to their music or playing style without slavishly mimicking it. The music may sometimes obliquely quote from them (but I am no jazz expert). What comes through quite clearly is the imagination and playful invention of Lee’s affectionate homage. Characteristically enough, though, the ‘homage movements’ are framed by a pensive, ‘prayerful’ slow Prelude and Postlude as well as including another reflective Interlude.

The somewhat more recent "ART: arias and interludes" is a substantial suite of five concise movements alluding to characters of the Commedia dell’arte beginning with a portrait of Pulcinella (a ‘mad polka’ depicting ‘a drunken lout whose every gesture was obscene’ [Stravinsky’s words]) and ending with Pantaloon’s Bolero, but also including a lament (Pierrot’s Dream), a virtuosic Scherzo (Harlequin’s Pantomime) and a frenetic, almost exhibitionist showpiece (Colombine’s Delirium). Again, neither pastiche nor parody in this superbly crafted music, although irony is not totally absent from these vividly depicted character sketches.

The "String Quartet on B-flat" (again, note the on rather than the more traditional in) is on the whole a more serious work though it too has its share of musical allusions to some superficially disparate musical modes. There is a Funky Scherzo and a Lamentoso ... mazurka-like (sic), which say much about Lee’s dogmatically free approach to musical form. I found this work marginally less compelling than its companions here.

The Hawthorne String Quartet’s members (all members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra) obviously enjoy the music and play with communicative commitment that is refreshing and irresistible.

Lee’s superbly crafted, appealing music was quite new to me; but I would now definitely want to hear more of it. Recommended and well worth looking for.


Reviewed by Robert Carl, “Thomas Oboe Lee: Morango… almost a tango • String Quartet On B-flat • Seven Jazz Pieces • ART: arias & interludes • Hawthorne Str Qrt. • Koch 3.7452-2 HI  (64.03)”  Fanfare, July/August, 2002

Thomas Oboe Lee is a Boston-based composer whom I have always associated with an aesthetic I sense is prevalent in the city; i.e., a belief in hybrids between ‘learned’ and ‘vernacular’ musics.  The leading proponent thereof has been Gunther Schuller, whose extraordinary service in the cause of jazz via writing its history, transcribing its great solos and arrangements, and reconstructing the large ensemble music from all periods cannot be praised highly enough.  His advocacy of a ‘third stream’ of composition---finding a synthesis between jazz and classical---is a more mixed legacy.  I used those terms ‘learned’ and ‘vernacular’ deliberately, instead of ‘classical’ and ‘pop,’ because that’s the tone of Boston---more academic, scrupulous, and Eurocentric than most of the rest of America.  It’s no surprise that neoclassicism at mid-century found its happiest home there, in such composers as Irving Fine and Walter Piston.  As a result, syntheses between elements whose traditions and origins are radically different often tend to get ‘cleaned up’ there, rough edges ironed out, good taste asserting itself against too much raucousness.  Everything ends up getting ‘classicized’ in the end.

Which does not mean good music can’t come out of the process.  It’s just that the balance between these divergent aesthetics has to be calibrated exactly, the composer’s attitude toward them carefully considered.  What fascinates me in particular about this disc is that Lee’s growth as an artist is steady throughout a 20-year span, and his approach ultimately avoids many of the pitfalls that lurk for a composer undertaking his sort of project.

The very first work on the program, "Morango … almost a tango," dates from 1983, and is a very elegant character piece.  (It lives up to its title by not trying to ‘be’ a tango in any literal sense; instead, it’s like a shadow of that source.)  Lee shows a particular talent for taking droning backdrops, ‘dragging’ harmonies, and allowing more active musical materials to grow organically from them, as from sonic soil---it’s evident in the first, third, and last of the "Seven Jazz Pieces" as well.  The 1990 string quartet ["String Quartet On B-flat"] shows Lee attempting to blend different compositional voices, and it’s the weakest of the works on the disc.  The form is too big for the materials, and the result, despite often pleasing moments, is a rhetoric that sounds a little blanched and coy.  The very next year brought the "[Seven] Jazz Pieces," and they are far more successful.  I think the reason is their dimensions---they are concise, elegant, devoted to a compressed beauty and lyricism.  The whole thing is also a bit haunting---homages and elegies to Horace Silver, Bill Evans, A. C. Jobim, and Jaco Pstorious constitute individual movements.  So what if it’s not as raw as jazz is supposed to be now?  That whole construct itself is just that, and if jazz really is as it’s supposed to be, then it can also be a source for tender, elegant, and precisely constructed art, which is what these pieces are.

But the real star of the show is the 1996 string quartet "Art: arias & interludes."  This is a string quartet in everything but name.  Its five movements are portraits of characters from the Italian commedia dell’arte---Pulcinella, Pierrot, Columbine, Harlequin, and Pantaloon.  Perhaps the fact that the music is drawing its inspiration from yet another popular art form (but this one shrouded in time and distance) gives the composer a corresponding sense of distance from his sources that in turn allows him greater freedom to assert his personality.  The second movement, Pierrot’s Dream, revisits the world of Morango, but 13 years later Lee’s vision has deepened---the music is just as mysterious, just as langorous, but also less predictable.  The music’s rhythmic gestures, its jazzy-tinged harmonies, and its dancy underpinnings: All these feel less derivative than ever before.  And maybe ironically, it is fresher, more personal, and yet also more ‘classical.’

The Hawthornes perform flawlessly.  Listening to this disc reminds me that we are perhaps in something of a golden age for string quartets; there are so many of such quality and sense of adventure.

I do wish that---despite Martin Brody’s perceptive notes---we were also given a brief biography of the composer as well.  The performers get theirs, and he deserves his.  I usually like to give birth dates of composers.  (While I may be wrong, I think Lee is somewhere close on either side of fifty.)  Lee is a composer who’s stayed the course.  His own instincts are clearly in tune with certain populist and postmodernist tendencies, but he’s also interested in developing an individual, integrated voice.  This disc suggests that he’s right on schedule in his project.


Andrew L. Pincus, "A different way to honor parents on a landmark birthday."
The Berkshire Eagle, May 23, 2002

RICHMOND -- If you're looking for something to give your parents jointly for their 75th birthdays, here's an idea you won't get from Martha Stewart: commissioning a piece of music.  That's the way Deborah Epstein, a Cambridge architect, chose to honor her parents. The idea isn't new, but as performed Sunday by MusicWorks, the resulting work, Thomas Oboe Lee's Duo for Violin and Viola, had the added virtue of being a gift to the concert world.

The Boston composer has poured new wine into the old bottles of Bach's violin sonatas and partitas and his cello, keyboard and orchestral suites. The seven brief movements, in fact, mirror those of the cello suites. If you're going to take a model, Lee said during the preconcert talk, you can't do much better than Bach.

The music provides a kind of guilty pleasure. It so mimics Bach in melody and counterpoint that it's tempting to say Bach did the job better. Tempting, but beside the point. Lee spikes his version with just enough easy-to-swallow modernisms in harmony and rhythm to make his own witty, engaging statement.

Contrasting his piece with Ravel's Sonata for Violin and Cello, which followed on the program, Lee said, "The Ravel piece is actually more modern than mine -- and I'm alive and he's dead!" The assessment was dead right.

MusicWorks has a long-standing relationship with Lee. This was the first performance of his duo in its violin-viola form (which also recalls, distantly, Mozart's duos for the same pair of instruments). He originally composed the piece last year for two violas. The idea was that Epstein's father, violist Herbert Epstein, could perform it with his teacher, Patricia McCarty, a former Boston Symphony Orchestra violist.

The revision takes advantage of the greater contrast possible with different instruments. But Lee also composed -- at least subconsciously -- with the thought of reflecting the personalities of seven Epstein family members, including Herbert's wife, Jean, in the seven movements.

The piece was affectionately performed by violinist Lucia Lin and violist Mark Ludwig, both current BSO members, in the presence of the family. From a brilliant prelude, it proceeds to a minuet with what Lee describes as "a middle eastern flavor" and a closing gigue whose flavor is Irish jig ("dancing into the night," says Lee). The violin dominates -- perhaps to a fault. Only in the slinky minuet does the viola get a chance to speak out.

MusicWorks returned to the place of its beginnings, the Richmond Congregational Church, to close its 17th season. Typically for the peripatetic series, the program deviated from the announced version, omitting a second contemporary duo and substituting Beethoven's String Trio, Opus 9, No. 3, for a Haydn quartet.

BSO cellist Owen Young joined Lin in the Ravel sonata, a memorial to Debussy. The sinewy performance nicely captured the phantasmagoric spirit of Ravel's grotesqueries, grief and bitterly humorous obsessions.

If not the last word in refinement, the Beethoven performance also got to the heart of the matter, which in this case was youthful energy bursting at the seams. The three BSO string players proved well-matched as they challenged and parried one another, but they appeared to reckon without the church's magnifying effect on sound.

The final word on the afternoon, however, belonged to the Epsteins. When someone in the audience asked the honored couple how they felt about getting a piece of music as a birthday present, they said they had enough goods and a piece of music was just lovely. A lovely thought to end the season.


L. Pierce Carson, “A brilliant performance of diverse music by Ives Quartet."
The Napa Valley Register, May 16, 2002

Thomas Oboe Lee is a jazz flutist and music teacher at Boston College.  If Lee’s 10-year-old work, "Seven Jazz [Pieces]," is a yardstick by which we measure his talents, then he’s a first-rate composer as well.

"Seven Jazz [Pieces]" incorporates tributes to four remarkable musicians ? a pairs of pianists, Horace Silver and Bill Evans, composer/performer Antonio Carlos Jobim and one of the world’s greatest bassists, Jaco Pastorius, whose manic depression led to his death at 35 in 1987.

The work begins with a prelude reminiscent of a tuning exercise and slips easily into a sound that is uniquely Silver, whose “Doodlin’” and “Sister Sadie” come to mind.  A melancholic interlude precedes a witty waltz in the Evans vein, and the salute to Jobim ? a cello pizzicato providing the rhythm while the remaining strings trot out a beautiful melody that Jobim would have loved.  The assertive punk funk groove that was Pastorius is represented before the ensemble chimes in with a foreboding postlude that, perhaps, speaks to a musical style yet to come.  The musicians’ insights brought an ideal combination of authority and warmth to this creative piece.


NewMusicBox  • The Web Magazine from the American Music Center
Issue 35 • Vol. 3 • No. 11 • SoundTracks • March 2002

From jazzy overtones and repeating cells reminiscent of early minimalism to short phrases punctuated by abrupt pauses, foreboding interludes, this hodgepodge for string quartet exalts Thomas Oboe Lee as the poster child of postmodernism.  The harmonically emotive lines coupled with a sensitive and tight performance by the Hawthorne String Quartet make this recording a pleasant piece of listening.


Willa J. Conrad, "Concerto for the people has joyful premiere."
The Star-Ledger, March 24, 2001

As debuts go, the world premiere of a new flute concerto by Boston-based composer Thomas Oboe Lee on Thursday evening at the John Harms Center in Englewood was an unusually joyful affair. That might be as expected, since the composer - a jazz flutist by habit, yet also a conservatory-trained composer and musician who arrived at this moment via Beijing, Hong Kong, Brazil, Pittsburgh and, finally, Bean Town - could be counted on to come up with something not quite of one world or the other.

How appropriate, though, given the concerto's antecedents. "Flauta Carioca," a pungent, rhythmically vital, but surprisingly linear and short dialogue written for principal flutist Bart Feller and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, was commissioned by 92 different entities, mostly individuals but also a few entire classes among 15 schools. When American Colonists dumped the first tea into the Charles River, who would have dreamed things would go this far? Now, even classical music, nurtured on the purse strings of European royalty and the church, can bypass the politics of public funding in America and deliver the music directly of the people and for the people.

There's nothing democratic, though, about how Lee constructed his three-movement work (or four, depending on how you count an interlude-like Pastorale that precedes the finale). The composer, for whom this was a first commission from a major symphony orchestra, fondly calls it "a Brazilian flute concerto" and describes himself as a "fusion" composer.

Looking at the 20-minute work in strictly dance terms, he structured it as a samba followed by a bossa nova movement followed by a samba. The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra's percussion players, who didn't exactly swing but seemed to have fun articulating the lively, layered rhythms, were kept quite busy.  Music director Zdenek Macal revealed a new side of himself as a skilled navigator through slinky rhythms and silvery sound bites.

The work is modest in scope, as if the composer wanted to see how things went before expanding on his ideas. The structure is borrowed from jazz: a lead soloist, Feller with his fluffy soft flute tone and rhythmic acuity, articulated a few basic melodic ideas, and the orchestra responded in short, truncated echoes. Occasionally, an instrument from the orchestra emerged in duet with the flutist. This may now be the only concerto that limns most every flute solo - including a virtuosic, 26-bar cadenza written by Feller himself - with accompaniment by a triangle.

Transformation of thematic material is not so important here as transference from one instrument type and timbre to another. Even Feller switched to an alto flute for the more introspective, mysterious central movement. Much of Lee's instinct in string writing appears to come from the Baroque; counterpoint in the concerto was a constant, though it was most often imbued in the percussion instruments. The work's biggest flaws, aside from understaying its welcome, is the way each movement ends abruptly, mid-sentence, as though Lee were not sure how to usher an entire orchestra out of an articulated jam session.

In short, it's an honorable first stab, and one that indicates the composer, whose bubbly optimism and love of music flows freely through the concerto, might have much more to say with orchestras in the future.

It was also refreshing to hear a principal player moved front and center. Guest flute soloists in the orchestra world are dominated by a few distinct personalities; Feller offered a direct, unembroidered performance that put the emphasis delightfully back on the music.


Richard Buell, "Lee's 'War and Peace' Premieres."
The Boston Globe,  March 7, 2001

"If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs ..."    
"If I should die, think only this of me: that there's some corner of a foreign field that is forever England ... "     
"He's gone, and all our plans are useless indeed ...''  

The words are by two poets who died in World War I (Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke) and those of Ivor Gurney.  Gurney, who was a composer as well, returned from the trenches alive but ended up destroyed mentally by the experience. He lived for another 20 years.

Thomas Oboe Lee, in his new Fourth Symphony (''War and Peace''), assigns the words, somewhat disconcertingly at first, to a soprano.  Soon, however, you begin to notice that, because of the distancing this creates, the words work upon the listener quite differently.  Those weren't certainly Owen, or Brooke, or Gurney, being portrayed onstage. Nor were they the fraught, standing-in-for-all-of-male-humanity generalizations Benjamin Britten foists on his soloists in the War Requiem. Soprano Peggo Horstmann Hodes sang - with poise, commitment, and palely pretty tone - in another mode altogether.

Lee has obviously grasped the rhythmic life of these poems. He sees to it that the words tell. They never kick against cadences of natural English. He has a subtle way of thinning out the overall texture - not too abruptly - whenever the singer is in the foreground.  Instrumental lines thread in and out, around and between.

These instrumental lines, and for that matter what Lee does with the orchestra in general, don't have to be nearly as objective as the singer. His rat-a-tat-tat march music can be, on purpose, almost, but not quite, exasperating. At which point it turns improbably florid.  Faux Shostakovich it isn't. And the composer has, it seems, listened well to the mellow pastoralism common to so much English music of the early 20th century. Lee's symphony is an adroit, well-put-together piece and a quite moving one. Its manner is lean, strong, and never overbearing. Max Hobart and the Civic Symphony gave it a sonorous, well-prepared premiere.


Leslie Kendall, "Jersey Footlights: Symphony Recruits a Jazzman."
The New York Times,  October 13, 1999

The first thing to know here is that Thomas Oboe Lee plays flute, not oboe -- although his parents, bless them, could not have predicted that when he was born in China in 1945). They also may not have guessed that in addition to his career as a jazz flutist, he would become a decorated composer, with a Kennedy Center Award, a Rome Prize, Guggenheim and National Foundation of the Arts grants, and on and on.

Nor has he lacked for commissions, having received them from the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Kronos Quartet, among a long list of others. His most recent, from the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, features its principal flutist, Bart Feller, and is to be introduced next season.

Mr. Lee is connected to the orchestra through his own life story. About 30 years ago, at the University of Pittsburgh, he was caught playing in a jazz combo that included what an orchestra spokesman described as ''a groovin' bassist'' from Duquesne University named Larry Tamburri. Mr. Tamburri, it turns out, grew up to be executive director of the New Jersey Symphony and has a long memory for the good times, so he called on his old jazz buddy to compose a little something.

The orchestra has devised an interesting way to raise money for the project. Donors of $200 or more are considered co-
commissioners. In addition to receiving tickets for the premiere, they may attend private seminars with Mr. Lee and Mr. Feller, as well as the first rehearsal. They will also receive copies of the score.


Richard Dyer, The Boston Globe,  June 8, 1998

The second work, "Seven Jazz Pieces,"  was wriiten for the [Lydian String] quartet by Thomas Oboe Lee; the Lyds' advocacy of Lee's earlier "Morango ... almost a tango" made it one of the composer's greatest hits, so Lee came up with "Seven Jazz Pieces" to return the favor.  Four of the pieces are lively and elegant tributes to jazz styles and their examplars (Horace Silver and bebop, Bill Evans and jazz waltz, Antonio Carlos Jobim and bossa nova, and Jaco Pastorius and punk/funk).  These are framed by a Prelude, Interlude, and Postlude in a somewhat different style; these present basic materials of music in quiet, still chords and remind us that honky-tonks and red-light districts weren't the only source of jazz - human feeling, and especially religious feeling, fed into it, too.  The piece is written in genuine affection and with genuine skill - it does not patronize the music, commercialize it, or, worst of all, concertize it.  The Lyds' performance was another amazing demonstration of chops and comprehensive musical sympathy.


Richard Dyer, The Boston Globe,  June 8, 1998

[RE: "The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa" for mezzo-soprano and organ]
[Mary] Westbrook-Geha did some spectacular singing in strong pieces by [Arlene] Zallman and Thomas Oboe Lee.


Susan Larson, The Boston Globe,  May 19, 1998

Serving the community for 20 years as one of the few remaining self-governing professional orchestras in the country, the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra has been celebrating its anniversary by soliciting 'Musical Birthday Cards' from favorite composers.  Sunday's greeting came from the wickedly witty pen of Thomas Oboe Lee, in the form of a samba called "Forró."  Gunther Schuller led the band prancing through the sophisticated rhythms and piquant sounds (violins wheezing like concertinas, purring muted trumpets) so stylishly you could imagine all with fruit baskets on their heads.


Daniel Webster, Philadephia Inquirer, April 26, 1998

Composer Thomas Oboe Lee, born in China and working in Boston, won the 1983 Friedheim Award with his "Quartet No. 3."  The piece has aged well, its big gestures and subtle inner voices speaking as clearly as they did 15 years ago.  The Kronos Quartet applies its precise and subtle approach to the work, amplifying color and creating scenes of great beauty and angularity.   Lee's "The Mad Frog!" pulls disparate instruments together in a boisterous race.  The Collage ensemble premiered the piece and plays it here with apt insouciance.


Susan Larson, "The Civic savors world premiere."
The Boston Globe, March 10, 1998

Continuing its fruitful relationship with composer, balletomane, jazz flutist Thomas Oboe Lee, who wrote a stunning 'Orpheus' suite for it two years ago, the Civic [Symphony of Boston] undertook the world premiere performance of his "Symphony No. 2,"  subtitled 'A  Phantasmagorey Ballet.'  Lee, taking inspiration from cartoonist-poet Edward Gorey, conceived five flights of terpsichorean fancy that must be as fun to play as they are to hear.  The glistening surfaces of Lee's music are instantly attractive, but there's substance under the razzle-dazzle, along with a sophistocated feeling for harmony and timbre.


Andrew L. Pincus, The Berkshire Eagle, October 28, 1997

For  contrast, the program offered Thomas Oboe Lee's "ART: arias & interludes" for string quartet, with the Cambridge composer on hand for the performance and preconcert talk.  The 'ART ' part of the title refers to the Artaria Quartet of Boston, which commissioned the five-movement 1996 work.  The rest has to do with commedia dell'arte figures from the stage.  None of them comes off terribly well in Lee's mischievous portrayal: Pulcinella is 'insufferable,' Pierrot 'a teary, sad sack' and Pantaloon an 'old goat.'  Harlequin tries to fly and finds himself stuck on the ceiling (the first violin can't get off a high note).  Colombine dances until she becomes 'lopsided and almost out of control.'  The dumb show is adroitly handled and good fun, with a leaven of seriousness beneath the mockery.  The question is whether the music would work as well without the composer's written guide to the action.  In any case, it helps to have a performance as committed as the Hawthorne [String Quartet]'s.


Richard Buell, The Boston Globe, July 1, 1997

Lee, one of those fortunate living composers who gets second and third and fourth performances, not just premieres, was represented by his "Seven Jazz Pieces," which also happens to be his seventh string quartet.  If memory serves, when the Lydians played it, it was the tastefulness of the four Hommages (to Horace silver, Bill Evans, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Jaco Pastorius) that stuck out.  This time, though, it was Lee's original material that weighed in as real, substantial, idiomatic to the instruments.  Music for instruments that are struck or blown (as most jazz/pop ones are) doesn't translate to strings easily, and of the non-Lee movements, only the Jobim seemed really viable.  This time.


Paul Somers, Classical New Jersey,  May 28, 1997

Marimba players Nancy Zeltsman and Janis Potter were as much a choreographic phenomenon as a musical one.  Defined by the physical demands of the music the duo swayed and dipped, dancing back and forth to the Brazilian-influenced "Eight Tarot Cards for Madam Rubio" by Thomas Oboe Lee.  Each card was represented on the printed program by name, then by its dance mood, and finally by a descriptive sentence.  The Boston-based composer was present.  At first he looked at his lap as if unable to watch his piece while it was outside his control.  But by the end he, too, was captured by the spirit of the music as if he had no closer relation to it than as a happy audience member.  The performance by marimba duo Madam Rubio was spirited and evocative. .... Outside the Brazilian dance mode was the more pictorial La Torre  (The Tower), a repetitive set of ostinati.  They finally merge into polytonal layers like a tower which then 'topples and crashes onto the populace gathered below.'  My favorite was La Papessa  (The Priestess), a moody mazurka about a magic potion for which Zeltsman used a very large mallet head to induce the lowest tones of her bass marimba.  And the inevitable Il Morte  (Death) walked slowly to a drum-beat.  It had the widest dynamic range of any work on the program.   But the other represented tarot-cards danced along in the cheeriest fashion.  Even the off-beat La Ruota della Fortuna  (Wheel of Fortune) with its off-center 5/8 meter was a joy.   The final Il Sole  (The Sun) was subtitled 'Salsa cubana!  Sunshine, margaritas ... '  If there was anything missing from this one it was a shout in the empty spaces after some of the cadences.


Jack Dressler, Post and Courier,  May 31, 1996

Thomas Oboe Lee presented his 'Symphony No. 1. Subtitled "Fallen Angels."  It featured startling, bristly supernatural effects, abrasive but tonal, which called for full-orchestra statements often too much for the church's space.  The second and third sections called attention to contrasting colors in strings and winds in which ingenious orchestration covered over the lack of real movement or melodic interest.  Surprisingly, though Lee was a student of Gunther Schuller, is a jazz flutist and dedicated his symphony to Miles Davis, nevertheless the scoring shows little recognizable integration of jazz techniques into the mixture.


Richard Dyer, The Boston Globe,  April 22, 1996

Two of the three movements of Lee's "Symphony [No. 1]" are about dancing - the danse macabre of the 'Prince of Darkness' and a Mephisto Waltz for the Prince and Lilith.  The third and final movement, 'Lilith's Lament,' is almost about stasis, although it is built on a slow and rhythmical ground bass.  Triangle solos at the end of the first and third movements are among the things that tie the work together.  The symphony is dark-colored and its gestures are strong, although perhaps too stark; sometimes the ideas seem to want more notes, further develpoment. The audience seemed to enjoy the extroverted and theatrical nature of the first two movements, and the melancholy timelessness of the third, and the composer seemed pleased with the performers and the piece.


Susan Larson, The Boston Globe,  May 2, 1995

Lee's "Eurydice" is also based on the Orpheus story.  The piece is shamelessly romantic, brimming with brilliant effects.  Lee has a subtle ear for harmony, and his rich loamy beds of sonority are deeply satisfying.  He gives important roles to percussion, colorful voicing to winds and brass while the strings sustain lush chords. [Andrés] Díaz's cello-as-Orpheus grieves for his beloved in spacious, rhapsodic tunes.  He is a big, emotionally open player with a warm vocal sound who knows exactly what to do with this kind of material.  The piece includes a wild ride to Hades and a gorgeous, schmaltzy love scene.  Hankies were sought and used.  The finale, 'Apotheosis,' sounded a bit too earth-bound.


Richard Buell, The Boston Globe, July 14, 1992

As for "That Mountain," the resultant cantata  for baritone and six instrumentalists, your reviewer's impression was of ... a decently rounded, respectful picture of the subject [Henry David Thoreau] emerging at the end of its seven movements.  That's because Lee is more a compositional leaver-out than a putter-in and probably  couldn't come up with a clotted texture if he tried.  Most of "That Mountain" had a Satie-like studied 'simplicity.'  Lee was much too wise to try to over-egg the pudding, the priority instead being to let the words (a plea for John Brown, various thoughts on water, fighting ants, earthly chaos and a graveyard on a hill) speak clearly.  And speak they did, both clearly and beautifully.   The performance, conducted by Lee himself, was trim and secure.


Richard Buell, The Boston Globe, Jan. 28, 1992

If Thomas Oboe Lee's song cycle "I Never Saw Another Butterfly" employs some dangerously potent texts - by children who perished in the death camps - the treatment is restrained and economical, the effect honest and moving.


Richard Buell, The Boston Globe, Oct.29, 1991

Thomas Oboe Lee's elusive, sleekly somber "Morango ... Almost a Tango" (1983) seemed much more substantial than other performers [compared to the Boston Composers String Quartet] have ever made it.  (The jury is still out on this unpredictable composer.)


Richard Buell, The Boston Globe, June 18, 1991

Next came the premiere performance of Thomas Oboe Lee's "Seven Jazz Pieces," a collection of compact and affectionate homages (to Horace Silver, Bill Evans, Antonio Carlos Jobim) that showed an admirable sure-footedness in maintaining the string quartet's sound-personality, yet at the same time seeing to it that the spirit of the originals came to life in their borrowed habitat.  Admirable, too, was the composer's way of framing these portrait-evocations - a pair of Arvo Pärt-like meditations, one at the beginning and one at the end, that weren't the least bit jazz-like but created an aura (first of expectancy, then of fulfillment) that seemed just right.


Carl Cunningham, Houston Post, January 18, 1990

Their [Marimolin's] signature piece, Thomas Oboe Lee's "Marimolin" proved to be the most astutely arranged work, making inventive use of the upper-register accompanying patterns in the marimba against a violin line that ran underneath it.  Except for an overly-long slow movement, dominated by a repeated broken-chord progression in the marimba, it was an engrossing, tastefully composed piece of considerable skill and invention.


William T. Dargan, Durham Morning Herald, December 5, 1989

There is no question that Lee is a phenomenally gifted, searching composer who is making an impact upon our musical generation.  The distinction of his work is to be found in the startling clarity and force of his conceptions.  Born in China in 1945, reared in Brazil, and active as a jazz flutist, Lee has a doubtless strong ethnic orientation toward music.  But the excitement of his music is found in the extent to which various dimensions are fused into one seamless whole.  In "Chôrinhos" (1987), African-derived rhythms leap through several stages of development in the outer movements, while the chamber ensemble sings an Ellington-esque lament tinged with a glimmer of transcendence in the inner statements.


Gary Burton, “Blindfold Test"
Downbeat,  August 1989

That’s ["Marimolin"] also my kind of piece:  strong melodies, very original, it sweeps and soars.  I would listen to and enjoy this many times.


Daniel Webster, Philadelphia Inquirer, March 7, 1988

Lee's "Chôrinhos, Op. 38" reflected that composer's years in Brazil, fusing dance rhythms and dance band sounds in sophisticated, terse musical shapes.  The second movement, a long, slow song for cello and violin eventually joined by the whole ensemble, is music so logically conceived that its melody seems familiar and, paradoxically, wholly new.  Each movement stressed a different group from the septet, a concerto for seven that moved melodically through three movements before celebrating angular rhythmic ideas in the fourth.


Joel Hupper, Westport News, March 20, 1987

Of special merit was the premiere performance of a work commissioned by the [Fairfield Chamber] Orchestra  - the "Concertino" [for Trumpet, String Orchestra and timpani] by Thomas Oboe Lee.  ... [Lee's] experience as an instrumentalist - a wind player, at that - must have been of invaluable assistance to him in composing this demanding and impressive work.  It is all very well to experiment with new ideas and sounds, but to do so with playable results, as he has done successfully, is a different matter.  This fine work, both vigorous and lyrical, is a welcome addition to trumpet literature in particular and to musical repertory in general.


John Rockwell, New York Times, November 16, 1986

RE: "Morango ... Almost a Tango"
 
... a soulfully beautiful score by Thomas Oboe Lee.


Richard Dyer, The Boston Globe, November 13, 1986

Lee’s piece, "Morango ... Almost a Tango," is a transcription of atmospheric and elegant music originally composed for string quartet; it is as sultry as Faith Domergue in a film noir, and it steams.


Mya Tannenbaum, Corriere Della Sera, October 9, 1986

RE: "Morango...Almost a Tango"
Non sono mancati i bis.  Un richiamo al sex appeal  del vecchio tango da parte di un giovane «premio Roma», Tom Lee.  


Michael Anthony, Minneapolis Star and Tribune, January 13, 1986

Lee’s "String Trio," a work that was commissioned by the [St. Paul] Chamber Orchestra, is a deftly written statement and development of two of the composer’s songs, Blue Moon in July and the perhaps slightly redundant Mendelssohn, Mendelssohn, Mendelssohn.  ... Lee displays a gift for lyricism that often is compelling, especially when played so beautifully, as it was by violinist Hanley Daws, violist Evelina Chao, and cellist Mark Brandfonbrener.


Stephen W. Ellis, “Lee: The Mad Frog! for Oboe, Bass clarinet, and Harp •  String Quartet No. 3 • Fredric Cohen, oboe; Robert Annis, bass clarinet; Ann Pilot, harp; Kronos Quartet • GM Recordings  GM 2007 • Gunther Schuller, producer • $8.98."
Fanfare, November/December 1985

You’ve got to love that name: Thomas Oboe Lee.  The 40-year-old, Peking-born composer has lived in the U.S. since 1966 and studied composition in New England with Schuller, McKinley, and Kim.  And what would be more fitting here than a work that includes an oboe in the scoring?  An early work, "The Mad Frog!" for oboe, bass clarinet, and harp (1974), is only the second in Lee’s catalog.  The piece comes from influences as diverse as Heinz and Ursula Holliger (the oboe-harp duo) and Lee’s ‘obsession’ with frog images.  (At one time Lee was a lab-technician in genetics and was a participant in the artificial-insemination breeding of frogs.)  It is possible to stretch things programmatically a bit and hear the instruments ‘croaking’ (the bass clarinet as a bullfrog?) and to interpret some ascending harp notes as ‘hopping,’ but otherwise the work is not really ‘froggy’---just rather whimsical and genially atmospheric.  His "Third String Quartet" of 1982, subtitled ‘ … child of Uranus, father of Zeus,’ won the 1983 Kennedy Center Friedheim Award for the best new chamber-music work by an American composer.  The quartet was inspired by myths involving the god Saturn.  The agitated opening depicts his warlike character but is soon mollified.  Very notably a sustained second-violin thrill emerges, and from the on the work becomes one of ornamentation built around this gesture, which is eventually absorbed into the fabric of the music.  After the work builds to a climax, an extended coda brings the music quietly and dreamily to a close.


Bernard Holland, The New York Times, October 13, 1985

Thomas Oboe Lee’s "Saxxologie ... a sextet" for six saxophones distilled the hard-edged sonorities and luscious extended chords of postwar jazz into a hymn of praise to bop.


Daniel Webster, Philadephia Inquirer, June 23, 1985

The big piece is Thomas Oboe Lee’s "Departed Feathers" for string quartet.  Lee’s music is bold and concise and rests on rhythmic invention that keeps it in full flight.


Richard Buell, The Boston Globe, April 30, 1985

The feature of Gunther Schuller's concert with the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra Sunday at Sanders Theater was the premiere of Thomas Oboe Lee's glitzy new "Harp Concerto," effortlessly performed by - or so it seemed - by the BSO's Ann Hobson Pilot ...   The piece is a varicolored orchestral gewgaw, a thing of tatters and patches, always (seemingly) about to turn into something.  It gets from here to there by just turning the page, plunging right on, and not looking back.  At the start it's a tartly colored, brightly scored affair, very contemporary and jagged in its phraseology.  Then come long stretches of static, quasi-legato vamping, followed in turn by lush André Kostelanetz-isms one doesn't know quite how to take.  Was there a quote from Stravinsky's 'Orpheus' in there too?  Like every other piece being written these days, it stops rather than ends, in mid-breath as it were.


Andrew Porter, The New Yorker, March 11, 1985

Thomas Oboe Lee’s "Phantasia for Elvira Shatayev... " is a setting of a poem by Adrienne Rich so powerful in its matter and its imagery that no composer with a modicum of technique could go far wrong with it.  Lee ... has plenty of technique.  His piece — a solo cantata, shaped as introduction, exposition, recitative, aria, and coda — was striking.


Charles Ward, Houston Chronicle, February 27, 1985

Thomas Oboe Lee’s [String] "Quartet No. 3... " succeeded through the juxtaposition of smartly dissonant music with a chordal, lyrical section that in mood, approached grand sentimentality in its initial appearance.  That’s a little surprising but not unexpected in this age of neo-Romanticism.


Richard Buell, The Boston Globe, Aug. 2, 1984

To their great credit, he [violinist Joel Smirnoff], bassist Edwin Barker, and pianist Benjamin Pasternak made sense of the unlikely stylistic lurches of Thomas Oboe Lee's "Hylidae ... The Tree Frogs," which many in the audience were surprised to find themselves liking hugely.


Richard Buell, The Boston Globe, April 5, 1984

In between came the premiere of Thomas Oboe Lee's "Double 'L' Triptych" [for Double Reed, Double String Quartet, and Double Bass], a cleverly constructed whatnot containing some prickly rhythms insisted on en bloc, the ghost of a passacaglia (perhaps), a lovely oboe soliloquy which turns into viscuous WJIB music, musical stuff going whence to therefrom in an unnervingly miscellaneous fashion, in different degrees of irony.  The piece aimed to please, and did.


Richard Dyer, The Boston Globe, August 6, 1981

No greater contrast [to another work heard at Tanglewood] could be imagined than the most entertaining piece of the festival so far, "The Cockscomb," a jeu d’esprit by Somerville’s own Thomas Oboe Lee.  ... the whimsical, edgy combination of words and music won the composer the week’s first standing ovation.


Richard Buell, The Boston Globe, May 2, 1981

Thomas Oboe Lee's "Octopus Wrecks," which pitted a brass quintet against a trio of double-basses, might well have been "La Mer" written in a bathyscape.  Here you had dark, murky  instrumental timbres; compositional discourse that moved in slow, heavy currents; motivic scraps that were hardly more than flotsam and jetsam.  And all this worked - every bit as oddly as it sounds - to an attractive, shapely, handsome-sounding piece.  When Collage introduced it two seasons ago, "The Mad Frog" proclaimed Lee a talented and an original composer, a 'natural.'  "Octopus Wrecks" confirms the impression.


Richard Buell, "Mad Frog Steals Show."
The Boston Globe, March 9, 1979

"The Mad Frog" turned out to be a very funny, adroit, and colorful business for oboe, bass clarinet, and harp.  If Donald Barthelme were a composer, would he write this way?  Yes.   I liked hugely the scabrous overblowing from the pair of winds, the dripping-faucet ostinato from the harp that somehow turned into a march rhythm (I found myself humming it during intermission), the extended bass clarinet cadenza that was very Dolphy-like indeed.  And it all cohered.  It made sense.  What timing and what a sense of audience psychology Oboe Lee has!  Fredric Cohen [oboe], Robert Annis [bass clarinet], and Ann Hobson [harp] did 'The Mad Frog' up proud, and if they ever make a record of it,  I'll buy it.