OBOE LEE: Articles,
Reviews - from 1979 to the present.
Jan van Hasselt, "Vuurdoop
Bunnik, May 21, 2012
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.
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
Matthew Guerrieri, "Thomas
Oboe Lee symphony premiere imagines Paris"
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
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
Geoffrey Wieting, "Boys'
Both Somber and Humorous"
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"
Intelleigencer, March 28, 2010
... Thomas Oboe Lee was born in
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"
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"
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
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
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
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
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
Reviewed by Peter Burwasser, “Thomas Oboe
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
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
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.
EDGE Boston, September 16, 2007
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"Morango ... almost a tango," by the duo Tapage, held its own on
night between the superb Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell in Alvin Ailey's
"Cry" and the New York City Ballet in George Balanchine's "Variations
une Porte et un Soupir." Performed to a sober string quartet by
Oboe Lee (played live onstage), Mari Fujibayashi and Olivia Rosenkrantz
tap dance into an austerely contemporary world, using their rhythms as
counterpoint to the music with graceful and impassive authority.
T.J. Medrek, "Landmarks' fifth season
kickoff out of this world."
Boston Herald, July
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
a concluding ``Pluto'' movement from noted Boston composer Thomas Oboe
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
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
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,"
has been widely performed in England and recorded. Former Boston
Julian Wachner tried his hand at it in 2003 for the New Haven Symphony,
adding movements for the recently discovered ''Planet X" and an
''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
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
and soon Pluto is deliriously dancing." A quiet passage follows as
appears, ''and then the fanfare from the opening comes back to end the
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.
doesn't have a waltz, so I made one, in a texture different from his,
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
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
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
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
Symphony's current composer-in-residence, Thomas Oboe Lee. This
around, one got a good feel for the work's careful ear for long-range
balance and deft handling of non-standard formats. Its eloquent
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,
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
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,
Richard Dyer, Classical Notes. "A strong
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
off-kilter. Two of the other movements are a little fey and
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
many of the artist's polymath interests: birds, Hollywood, ballet and
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)
the work's only dissonance, with marimba, horns and low strings
a hushed meditation in support. The third movement features an
horn and percussion duet; the fourth, a burlesque polka for comic
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
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
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
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
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
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
Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times, September
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
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
Boston Herald, July
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
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
B-flat • Seven Jazz Pieces • ART: arias & interludes • Hawthorne
Str Qrt. • Koch 3.7452-2 HI (64.03)”
MUSICWEB, June 2003
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
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
eschews any attempt at pastiche or parody. Rather his music, at least,
in the pieces recorded here, pays sincere tribute to a number of
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
and playful invention of Lee’s affectionate homage. Characteristically
enough, though, the ‘homage movements’ are framed by a pensive,
slow Prelude and Postlude as well as including another reflective
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
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
almost a tango • String Quartet On B-flat • Seven Jazz Pieces • ART:
arias & interludes • Hawthorne Str Qrt. • Koch 3.7452-2 HI
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
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
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.
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
The very first work on the program,
… 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.)
shows a particular talent for taking droning backdrops, ‘dragging’
harmonies, and allowing more active musical materials to grow
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
["String Quartet On B-flat"] shows Lee attempting to blend different
compositional voices, and it’s the weakest of the works on the
The form is too big for the materials, and the result, despite often
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
elegant, devoted to a compressed beauty and lyricism. The whole
is also a bit haunting---homages and elegies to Horace Silver, Bill
A. C. Jobim, and Jaco Pstorious constitute individual movements.
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
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
The Boston composer has poured new wine
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
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
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
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
interlude precedes a witty waltz in the Evans vein, and the salute to
Jobim ? a cello pizzicato providing the rhythm while the remaining
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
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
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
How appropriate, though, given the concerto's antecedents.
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
have dreamed things would go this far? Now, even classical music,
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
Looking at the 20-minute work in strictly dance terms, he
structured it as a samba followed by a bossa nova movement followed by
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
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
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
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'
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 ... "
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
creates, the words work upon the listener quite differently.
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
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
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
and a quite moving one. Its manner is lean, strong, and never
overbearing. Max Hobart and the Civic Symphony gave it a sonorous,
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
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
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
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
the sophisticated rhythms and piquant sounds (violins wheezing like
concertinas, purring muted trumpets) so stylishly you could imagine all
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
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
Harlequin tries to fly and finds himself stuck on the ceiling (the
violin can't get off a high note). Colombine dances until she
'lopsided and almost out of control.' The dumb show is adroitly
handled and good fun, with a leaven of seriousness beneath the
The question is whether the music would work as well without the
written guide to the action. In any case, it helps to have a
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
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
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
Tower), a repetitive set of ostinati. They finally merge into
layers like a tower which then 'topples and crashes onto the populace
below.' My favorite was La Papessa (The Priestess), a moody
about a magic potion for which Zeltsman used a very large mallet head
induce the lowest tones of her bass marimba. And the inevitable
Morte (Death) walked slowly to a drum-beat. It had the
dynamic range of any work on the program. But the other
tarot-cards danced along in the cheeriest fashion. Even the
La Ruota della Fortuna (Wheel of Fortune) with its off-center 5/8
meter was a joy. The final Il Sole (The Sun) was
'Salsa cubana! Sunshine, margaritas ... ' If there was
missing from this one it was a shout in the empty spaces after some of
Jack Dressler, Post and Courier,
May 31, 1996
Thomas Oboe Lee presented his 'Symphony No. 1. Subtitled "Fallen
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
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
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
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
in the marimba, it was an engrossing, tastefully composed piece of
considerable skill and invention.
William T. Dargan, Durham Morning
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
toward music. But the excitement of his music is found in the
extent to which various dimensions are fused into one seamless
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
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,
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,
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
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
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
vecchio tango da parte di un giovane «premio Roma», Tom
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!
Bass clarinet, and Harp • String Quartet No. 3 • Fredric Cohen,
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
(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
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
always (seemingly) about to turn into something. It gets from
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,
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,
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
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
... 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."
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.