The Center's Studio Podcast

Masterpieces That Might Have Been: The Life and Music of James W. McConkie

March 21, 2018 Episode 1
The Center's Studio Podcast
Masterpieces That Might Have Been: The Life and Music of James W. McConkie
Chapters
The Center's Studio Podcast
Masterpieces That Might Have Been: The Life and Music of James W. McConkie
Mar 21, 2018 Episode 1
Jamie Erekson
The life and music of composer James W. McConkie
Show Notes Transcript
The legacy of composer James W. McConkie is explored by his grandson, Jamie Erekson, including a vintage recording of the composer who studied with Arthur Honneger and Nadia Boulanger and who was the brother of LDS apostle, Bruce R. McConkie.
Speaker 1:
0:16
Hello everybody and welcome to the first podcast or the Mormon art center. I'm your host to Glen Nelson in New York. Today's episode, we'll be telling the story of one of the great gifts of Mormon Arts, the life of music, of composer chains, person sitting in the studio with me and my studio. I'm in my studio apartment is Jamie Erickson. Grandson. Mcconkey is currently been to like the music of this forgotten. Yeah.
Speaker 2:
0:46
Yes. Composer. Mcconkey is almost completely unknown now, but in the 19 fifties he was poised for a major career in American classical music here to phd in composition at Columbia University in 1950 and then went to Paris to study with the legendary teacher Nadia Boulogne j. Then tragedy struck at the age of 32. So welcome Jamie. I'm really excited to be with you here today. How does James Fit into the mcconkie family? So as I understand it, bruce, our McConkey is his brother. Is that right? Yes, his older brother. So James was the third child at Bruce is the oldest. Then there was Brit France, Britain actually named after our allies in world war one. And then James was the third child and he had a younger sister, Margaret and two younger brothers, a Oscar and willing. Okay. And he was. So James was born in Nineteen, 21? Yes. You know, I don't really think of the mcconkie family is a musical family.
Speaker 2:
1:47
No, no. It was a pretty clear, almost from the beginning that he was a family anomaly. His, his mom used to tell Bruce Bible stories at bedtime and James just wanted music. He used to and no one in the family could even hold a tune so they, they turn on the Victrola and he'd stand in his tremble bed and he just listened attentively until eventually he was laying down and falling asleep. I once went to a state conference and elder mcconkie was the visiting authority and he didn't see any organist and it really struck me. And then somebody mentioned that to him and he said, Oh, you don't want to hear your family had put together a short documentary fill that. They interviewed each other about James's life. And as I heard some of the surviving members of the family talk, it was like they couldn't figure out even now how different he was from them.
Speaker 2:
2:53
Yeah. You know, the, the other boys would play sports and James would be inside practicing piano too. Afraid to hurt his fingers. Let's get an overview of his life. So he, in 1944, he married Gwendolyn Wirthlin, who was the sister of David Wirthlin. And then he served for, I don't know how long he served in the military, is that right after his wedding, his before and after. So after his mission, he enlisted because he felt a moral obligation to fight. He really felt like it was a fight between good and evil. So he had, he actually had the opportunity to have a safe job as a chaplain in the states, but he decided to go for the job as a radio operator and get her on the 24th because he wanted to be in there and fight. So he, he enlisted. And then on a brief leave of absence that was slightly extended by him going awol for a day.
Speaker 2:
3:52
He married Gwendolyn bittner worthless. Oh, okay. Yeah. A will a company that's gonna stick. Okay. So do we know when he started composing? I mean, I understand that he played the piano for a long time even as a child. Yes. Yeah, he started. So he started Kiana. I was studying piano when he was six and then, um, by the time he was tiny, he was studying composition at dental school of music and Salt Lake. He was also teaching his own private studio at that time when he was 10 years old. And there's this story where I guess he would get pretty frustrated with. There's no to get frustrated with his students. And so his mom would come in during the lessons and she'd pull his ear to remind him to be patient. So he was teaching at a young age and then by the age of 18 he graduated with a master's in composition from the machine school music.
Speaker 2:
4:52
So some people don't know what the school was, but in, in Utah, it was just the premier place to go. An extraordinary number of very fine composers in the church have come from that school and performers as well. It doesn't surprise me that he has that connection, but then he came to New York. Yeah, so then he went on his mission first and then abernathy deserved the New England states. So that was actually a really formative musical education for him too because missions were different back then. Not Quite so structured and you know, he was far from his roots as a young boy in Moab and Monticello this now and he was walking around the streets in New York City and so this was him, you know, he's going to concerts. He was exposed to some of the greatest performers of this time and so he would also actually write a fugue every week that he'd been performed on the radio, the local radio station, so that he was.
Speaker 2:
5:54
He was still composing while he was on his mission. He. How many is his musicianship after his mission? He, he came back to Salt Lake City, actually got a BA in philosophy at the u. Then he went to Columbia. You know, before we get too far into news, Columbia school, it kind of mirrors your school, your pet. We haven't talked about you at all. So who are you in connection to this guy and why are you in New York right now? I'm his grandson, so I'm his youngest daughter's son and I'm studying music composition. Okay. And your name is? Jamie. James is named after him. When you were growing up, how aware were you of your grandfather's music and historic? I was very aware of it. It's a story that's always been present in that isn't often told. Alright, so this is what I understand about the Columbia studies and you'll tell me you know what I'm missing, but he came here and the late forties, his phd thesis at Columbia was titled The Keyboard Suites of Bach.
Speaker 2:
7:04
A consideration of the horizontal and vertical elements found theory and real page Turner. Super page 249 of those pages. Have you ever seen that dissertation? I have. I haven't read it yet. I feel like now I could. I could actually understand it. Listening to his music. Do you get a box? And I think every piece of it is that I've heard hearkens back to Bob Brock who was his greatest influence. Obviously he, yeah, he wrote his dissertation on box keyboard suites. He also, there's this entry in his journal when he's going off to more and he's, you know, wondering if he's going to die or not. And then he, he writes, well, if I die, I hope I'll be able to sing again. Box Choir. I, I was aware of this connection that I didn't know how literally it would be a mormon art center. Had a little concert in January and we played a few works by McConkey and one of the excerpts from the Sonatina that he created in 1948 to 1950.
Speaker 2:
8:15
One of the movements is neoclassical. I mean it's almost, it's not cut and pasted. It's original, you can tell, but there's a lot more influence than just at a general respect for Bob. Definitely. Yeah. All right. So after Columbia then what happened to him? So it was a really interesting time because he had his second child a year before he, he received his phd and then they decided to move to Europe to their, to their parent's dismay, right. Because this was a very, it was an unstable time. I take 50. Yeah. So the Korean War was about to begin, you know, in Europe, we're still struggling to get over devastation of world war two. But James had received a fulbright to study, to study in France, so they moved their family to a little village outside of Paris and then he'd spend the next year of his life and intense study with two of the most revered musicians of the 20th century.
Speaker 2:
9:17
So it was our third on a care and not even watching. I mean, for, for people who don't recognize Nadia's name, she's sort of, uh, her, her list of students is kind of a WHO's who in music. I mean, I'm not an expert by any stretch, but I did a little bit of Wiki level research this morning. So she was the daughter of a concert pianist and a Russian princess comes in handy. Yeah. And uh, she was a pianist and studied with Gabriele far right and she was a close friend of Stravinsky too. But get a list of, these are some of her students, Aaron Copeland, Mark Blitzstein, Philip Glass, Roy Harris, Elliot Carter, Virgil Thompson, David Diamond astropay at Sola Michelle Lagrand, burt Bacharach, Gian Carlo Menotti, Thea Musgrave, long long list to imagine American music without those people is kind of a radical thing. So when we say that mcconkie studied with on a gear and, and what does that mean?
Speaker 2:
10:22
Did he have frequent studies? Was it a, was it part of a program? Do we know with that? He was at the Paris Conservatory and then I studied at a, another French quote with Omega and it's a name that I can't pronounce, but um, he got into the program and he took private composition lessons once a week with j. and then the three lessons a week studying, I kept score reading theory. She actually gave him our long lessons instead of the required half hour lessons. And they actually developed a very close friendship when I was out in Utah again for this concert in January. I met your mom and your aunt and uncle and they talked about on Jay, but she was close with the family. Yeah. Yeah. I think they said I can get this wrong probably, but I think she considered herself to be their godmother.
Speaker 2:
11:25
So yeah, she, um, she, she was known to be a really tough person to work with. I think. What did I have a quote here? He said he mcconkie so james described her as ruthless, nothing but results satisfier. And if you can't do it, it indicates that you simply are not a good musician to her. After three months of struggle, I'm beginning to get a little facility and some of the things. So it was a struggle for him at first. And then they started to, she started to really enjoy his music and developed this friendship with him. And when my mom was born, Michelle, uh, then we want you to claimed her as a child. We have a letter of her asking about Michelle claiming here. Yeah, that's very cool. I can't imagine what it must've been like for this American who had some exposure to things, but you know, you have to remember that in the 19 fifties, it's not like you could go to itunes and here and unlimited amount of music.
Speaker 2:
12:28
So I suspect that everywhere he went he just was exposed to more and more and more music and then to be in this circle, all of a sudden keep. Must have thought that, you know, he was on the edge of something. Pick, right? I mean, do we have an idea how ambitious he was as a compulsive? He was ambitious. They actually only damn envelope. I wanted him to stay longer to take another year of study because they had some want to go here and some ideas for performing his music in Europe. But James decided it was time to stop procrastinating and he, uh, due to the unstable world situation called it. And so he wanted to get back to the states and the employee. So he decided to come back and he was entering competitions. We know he wanted to win the Prix de Rome. He wanted to write an opera.
Speaker 2:
13:25
He had a long list dreams. Do you have any idea of how much of these music was performed, if any? Um, it was performed. So while he was, while he was in his doctoral program at Columbia, he was also the music director for a large Manhattan congregation on 81st street. And so he, he put on a special musical services, sometimes handel's Messiah or forest by grand, but he'd also informed his stuff and some of these, uh, some of these services were broadcast nationally or throughout the city of New York. And so he had performances in New York while he was studying. And then, um, when he came back from Paris, the Mormon Tabernacle choir performed some of his work and he, uh, different, uh, different ensembles in Minnesota where I ended up teaching, they perform his work, but he was just starting to become a well known figure in the Minnesota region.
Speaker 2:
14:26
He's only 30. I mean, I mean, I don't know how much music you've written. How old are you? I'm 28. Okay. So I have a few written roughly his age, but the scores that I see look quite ambitious. You mentioned Minnesota. What do you mean? They're like, why? Why was he in Minnesota? So. So he, he accepted a position to as as an assistant professor of composition that University of Minnesota, Ms dot very large university, I believe there are around 58,000 students there at the time. Also the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. They rehearsed on campus every day and they would actually annually perform with different ensembles at the university. So James also had the opportunity to conduct the Symphony Orchestra, the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra as well as the various choir groups there. So that was a big draw for him. He was a fine pianist and composer and he wanted to be a conductor as well.
Speaker 2:
15:32
He was a conductor mostly of choral music. He was very interested in general music obviously, and a choral music. The the interesting thing is a lot of times composers will hit it. They'll, they'll grow up, you know, learning their instrument and performing and that at some point they'll pivot into mostly focusing on, on composing. But throughout all of this, James is continually performing. Well, why don't we take a look at a little bit of his music? There's one score you have. I have been in front of me. Let's see where to go. Yeah. So this is called a Sonatina for piano. And at the end of it he's marked the dates and where it was written. Uh, so it's 1948 or 1951 New York, Paris, Comma, Minneapolis. The triumvirate artists in capitals. But the, the thing that I noticed about it is this is pretty difficult music. You have a recording of him playing this piece. Is that right? Yes. Yes. No original record base of three movement work. So let's listen to the last movement and then talk about it.
Speaker 2:
19:47
Tell me what your thoughts are about it. I mean, you know, you're, you're a musician, Dan Kennedy, yourself. It do. Could you play this a maybe give me a few years. My wife's playing it. Tell me what your thoughts are as you're listening to this music and uh, you know, what you think he was successful in? Well, you definitely hear back, right? You hear the counterpoint like you hear different intervals, different harmonies, right? You're fourths and fifths, you get a his own flavor to. He's a jazzy guy, like there's a lot of rhythmic by love syncopation. I'm dry. I'm looking at. I mean these are handwritten manuscripts rather than computer generated things that contemporary composers are familiar with and it's a very clean score. I mean, I don't know if it was written out in manuscript form in some other place. It just transcribed into this. It's very precise actually.
Speaker 2:
20:50
It's quite beautiful, you know, just from a visual standpoint, but it has a lot of dynamics and it ends with a punch. Yeah, it does. It's a very fiery piece. I mean it's actually. I found an old review of a critic writing about James is performance of this piece in Minnesota and this was in the Minneapolis Star and it said change mcconaughey's piano Sonatina was one of the most vivid and stylistically assured pieces on the program. A three movement were compact and rapid and idiom reflecting a bit of the swift epigrammatic manner of French modern. Incidentally, McConkey pianism with is brilliant and like finger does this composition, I think as you can hear, I mean it's really tough piece to play, but actually while he was at Columbia he was studying with Carl Freebird, he studied with Clara Schumann and was good friends with Bronx, so he, James was a, was a very talented candidates.
Speaker 2:
21:48
So this is the third movement of this work Sonatina. But what are the other two movements like? I'm the first one's fast, but it's, it's got a little more humor in it. That one's a little more jazzy and then the second movement is really beautiful. It's a slow movement. It's very simple. It's based on, some are arpeggiated chords and it's a really beautiful. There's another score here. Let's look at it. These are pieces that he wrote for his children, James Marches around the room and then a night song for Michelle and I'd waltz with Kathy. Right. And when were these done? Winter 1952. Minneapolis, Minnesota. And uh, so your mom is Michelle? So the second work is hers. I love the idea that composers are writing music for their family members. I'm sure it echoes what's going on. I mean it says here, Jamie marches around the room.
Speaker 2:
22:51
I'm sure this would have been your uncle James, right? James Wilson. Mcconkie the second. Yes. I wonder how much access they have to this music. Are there recordings of it? I mean, did they grow up hearing any of this music? I don't believe there are recordings. Not that I've heard and I think they've heard a couple of performers playing through them, but not much more than that. Okay. So he's in Minneapolis now. He's a professor. All three children are born and then church wise, this was sort of strange to me. Then I was doing a little bit of research about your family and especially the uncles and aunts. It seems like James was sort of the spiritual one of the family. I mean we didn't go an elder Bruce McConkey is being a spiritual one that I was told that James was sort of the hope of the family spiritually.
Speaker 2:
23:50
I think they thought James would be the one who would really put the family on the map. He'd be the famous one and in 1951 he was serving in the church as the district president, so in many in Minnesota, that's the north central state's mission. Now let's talk about the tragic part of his life. What happened to him next in Minnesota? During the polio epidemic of 1953, his his two daughters, Kathy and Michelle, they disregarded their parents instructions and they went up to visit a neighbor boy, fallen ill. They ended up getting polio, followed both daughters contract to folio fairly quickly by. I'm like Jamie, this seven year old son, I'm Jamie's health plummeted and he was hospitalized and everyone was careful to keep their distance. But before January for the hospital, James a hug him and gave him a kiss. I'm Jamie would eventually recover after months of rehabilitation, you know, learned how to walk again, but I'm two weeks, two weeks later, James passed away after, after spending the last few days of his life in an iron lung.
Speaker 2:
25:23
Oh my goodness. He was only. You know, your grandfather was only 30 to 32 years old wife and three kids. Yes. What did the family do? I mean, did they stay in Minnesota? Where did they go? I believe they moved back to Utah and then then Glen moved your family back to New York and she ended up getting her degree at Columbia and she became a teacher. Whenever we talk about composers, especially composers who pass away young, my thought is always what is their musical legacy? So let's talk first about what that means in your family. I mean, here was this person that they thought very highly of obviously as a human, but as a composer, I'm sure they all loved what he was doing or the trajectory of his career at least. And then suddenly when it stops, what did they do with physically with the scores and all of his papers?
Speaker 2:
26:26
I don't believe a lot was done for, for a while. I think in the eighties, my uncle, uh, he donated scores to the library at Byu, but I, their inbox, it's. Yeah. You know, I've talked with families of composers and this idea of what to do with their scores and papers. It's really complex. Like they want to keep them, they want to protect them as part of their part of their inheritance in a way, but they don't know what to do with it. I would imagine in your family and extended family, it was more complicated because they were grieving for it. And so as I understand it from your mom and aunt and uncle, they kind of boxed away all the music and put aside and you know, they didn't try to get it performed much and it kind of disappeared. Yeah, that's true. It's like I said, it's, it's a story in the family that everyone knows, but you don't talk about it because there's still so much pain.
Speaker 2:
27:39
And it was really interesting actually doing the research for this and as I was researching and as I was going through his journals, as I had this constant dialogue with my mom about her memories, um, and I was writing it up when I started writing about his death, I just started sobbing. It was really interesting because I never, you know, I've never met him but I still feel this connection to them and I still feel this pain and I think partially it's because I know how much pain my mom feels and I love her, but also part of it feels like my own pain. This man who was my, my granddad and I never, I knew him and on that's not fair. I mean years nay saying and you're following in his career and you're getting a graduate degree. Interesting. Because I was looking at his notes at Columbia and his notes at a from his program at the Paris Conservatory and I was.
Speaker 2:
28:43
And the stuff he was studying, what I'm studying, it's the same assignments is because conservatories, a lot of conservatories in, in the US actually patterned their curriculum after the Paris conservatory model. So it's interesting to seeing what he was doing and it would be great to give them a call and ask for advice on some of my assignments and you know, how am I doing on this counterpoint will. It really does feel to me like this. Great. What if story, I mean with his connections in Utah and what would eventually happen with this brother on in the core of the 12 and his own talent? Had he continued on what? I can't imagine that his music wouldn't be well known by everybody who's a member of the church at the very least. Yeah. It's hard to know. One of the things that I. I read a little bit from his journal and he wrote him a letter his wife when when he was serving in the military about politics.
Speaker 2:
29:46
You know where I'm going. I have an excerpt. I'm not going to read it. He was stationed abroad and he says, my dearest, when do not think mean untrue to the brethren because I disagree with them politically, so he's a. he's a democrat. He says we are a one on gospel principals and perhaps diametrically opposed in other things, but as far as I'm concerned, my thinking on politics is just as valid as their own. As a matter of fact, I think I'm dead right in my political views and some of them are dead wrong, but thinking that does not make me disloyal to them. That is the thing. Treat member at one time, I thought it might take a little time, but eventually I bring you about to the light politically, but I have not Harvard session idea since leaving the states. I'm never going to attempt it with all my love. I remain your democratic. So can you tell me a little bit about the politics of your families and uh, and how he might have fit into that? Yeah, so the McConkey is we're, we're committed democrats. And like his dad asked her, his lawyer, he was a judge. He actually, he, he ran for governor and lost obviously as all, you know, McCarthy's do in Utah. Your first idea.
Speaker 2:
31:13
Um, so yeah, he was, he was a committed Democrat and going on the other hand came from a very conservative family with strong Republican ties. So it was definitely a source of contention in their marriage, but they had, they had a very happy marriage. Why were they democrats in the first place? Not that that's obviously a good thing or a bad thing, but is there a historical precedent for story goes that I guess back in the day the church wanted more political diversity and so they drew a line and the people on the one side of the road were Republicans and people on the other Democrats and we were on the Democrat side, but I just thought that that was just sort of enabled. They really identified. They really got into it. I talked with a couple of pianists about James Music and why they think it's not better.
Speaker 2:
32:06
No, and the first thing that they mentioned to me was the technical requirements are pretty hot. It's a lot, a lot to learn and a lot to get through safely. Do you have a comment on that? I mean because you know from your own experience what it's like to play it. Yeah, it's, it's tough. It really is. And also their handwritten manuscripts, which also legibility is also an issue sometimes. So then with choral work there are no published scores, really ugly. There's one, but no, he. He was just starting to try and get stuff published. Four. Wow. So in a way if somebody wanted to learn more about this music, it would be pretty hard to do that. Like where would they go if they wanted to learn more about it just stayed with me or someone else in the family or we're. There's some music at Byu library at this point.
Speaker 2:
33:04
Alright. So they've deposited scores at the Harold Lee Library. They have a fantastic music collection there and you can make an appointment and just go, but maybe that's something that your family might consider is what? About publishing? Yeah. Do you want to put any of these things in print? Yes, definitely. It's quite a wide range of music that he composed and. But we've talked mostly about piano music, but what, what else is in his body of work, he, he can post for orchestra and some small chamber ensembles. String quartets, quite a bit of choral music. Quite a few vocal solos, vocal piano pieces and are more. They like art songs, so they weren't devotional songs and some folk songs really. But he was. He was definitely most interested in writing for the piano and voice, so in James his day he was an outlier as being a musician in a family that wasn't particularly musical, but that can be said anymore of the McConkey. Is there a whole bunch of your clan that are fantastic musicians, right? Yeah. Yeah. My cousin Kelly's a professional cellist and she plays with the, uh, science string quartet in the orchestra in Tampa Square and my other cousin, she also studied composition if Byu you. And so yes. It's a big part of our family culture. Is there something blasting that you'd like to leave with the listeners about your grandfather and his music?
Speaker 2:
34:39
I guess he, he. How else? He loved his family. He loved the Gospel. He loved his music. And I think that's something that you can feel something that I feel when I listened to his music, especially when I listened to the song that he wrote for my mom, let's all listen to that piece. It's called a night song from a show written in 1952. That's one year before McConkey passing. It will be performed by Emily Erickson, who is Jamie's wife.
Speaker 3:
37:56
On behalf of the Mormon Art Center, I want to thank you for listening. It's a bit of a scary thing to start a podcast series. We want to shine a light on contemporary and historic artists who have mormon connections. Eighteen 32, the present worldwide and with so much ground to cover. You can imagine the anxiety of trying to do a good and thorough job at it. We'll make mistakes. Hopefully we'll get better and better. We'd love to hear your comments. Email us at Mormon arts center at Gmail Dot Com, the compositions you've heard in this episode. Our SONATINA for piano, the entire third movement, and excerpts from the first and second movements that began, and we'll end this episode and a night song for Michelle. Both were composed by james w McConkey at are used with permission performers were mcconkie himself in a vintage recording and Emily Erickson respectively. This interview took place March ninth, 2018 in New York City. Our sound engineer is Robert Willis.
Speaker 1:
38:58
We hope you've enjoyed our first in a monthly series of interviews with Mormon artists and discussions on topics of warm arts. You can learn more about our organization by going to our website, Mormon art center.org. I'm Glen Nelson in New York. Goodbye.