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Prolific composer’s music on the air

Pico van HoutryveComposer W. Jay Sydeman works on archiving 50 years of his compositions in his music studio at home in Nevada County on Friday.
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

An unrelated event almost 2,000 miles away can forever impact someone when they least expect it. In composer W. Jay Sydeman’s life, that event was John F. Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963.

Sydeman remembers exactly where he was when Kennedy was shot – the composer was on the Symphony Hall stage during his first major orchestral performance as the Boston Symphony premiered his “Study No. 2” for orchestra. Right after Sydeman left the stage, conductor Erich Leinsdorf announced the president had been killed.

Three years later, the Boston Symphony commissioned Sydeman to write a piece memorializing Kennedy. Sydeman spent the next six months researching books and articles about the president, along with his speeches, and another six months composing “In Memorium John F. Kennedy.” The 25-minute work written for a narrator (television star E. G. Marshall) and full orchestra was immediately performed in Boston, New York’s Lincoln Center and in Washington, D.C.



“I was writing how I felt when the president I loved was shot down. The piece eulogizes Kennedy but also includes my personal lament; it shows the grief we all felt,” Sydeman remembered. “It describes in a sense our loss of innocence.”

With this year marking the 40th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination and after spending about four hours a day the past three years archiving his compositions, Sydeman has reflected often about “In Memorium John F. Kennedy.” So far, Sydeman has filled 12 CDs with his works from the past five decades and jokes he has material left for 20 additional CDs.




A major figure in the East Coast 1960s’ avant-garde scene, Sydeman, 75, is one of the country’s most published composers in several media: voice, chamber music, orchestra and opera. In 1988, he moved to Nevada City and formed Twin Cities Chamber Players and the Auburn Youth Symphony. Sydeman was one of three founders of the Nevada County Composers Cooperative.

Sydeman’s archival work will be heard throughout this year on John Deaderick’s program titled “The Classical Edge” on Nevada City’s community radio station, KVMR. The series kicks off Sunday at 8 p.m. when Sydeman plays “In Memorium John F. Kennedy” and “Study No. 2,” with the composer pointing out the moment during the latter’s premiere when Kennedy was fatally shot.

Eric Tomb hopes to soon air some of Sydeman’s material on Foothills Community Access Television’s Channel 11. Both Deaderick and Tomb are on the cooperative’s board of directors.

“I respect Jay and feel that the arc of his creative process encompasses many of the developments of so-called classical music over the last 45 years,” Deaderick said. “Jay’s work, to me, is a microcosm of trends and directions in the Western tradition. And, as he has never stopped searching, his style has moved ever onward, and that’s both a good and a rare thing.”

Sydeman is delighted that his work from 1952 to today will be aired on the local radio and community access television stations.

“I want to bring this body to a wide group of listeners who may never have experienced this music of this time,” Sydeman explained.

“I hope young people tune in. Between the ’50s to ’70s there was a great deal of creative and imaginative thought, both politically and artistically.”

Composer Mark Vance, who is also on the Nevada County Composers Cooperative board, said this airtime exposure is a big deal for residents.

“Jay landed here professionally and continued to write and has been incredibly prolific as a composer. The volumes he’s written is a jaw-dropper,” Vance said.

“He’s gone through to make sure he has a performance of everything he’s done. It’s like a real-time exhibit. What a great opportunity for the Nevada County public to experience.”

KNOW & GO

WHAT: John Deaderick1s 3The Classical Edge² radio show featuring W. Jay Sydeman1s works

WHEN: Sunday at 8 p.m.

WHERE: KVMR-FM 89.5


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