UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 08 Summer 18 Library
Coe Sweet

We Hold These Truths

In the music world, as in life, timing is everything.

Just ask J. Todd Frazier, the Houston-based composer who both has a passion for and shares a first name with one Thomas Jefferson, and who heard in 2012 that the opera star Renee Fleming was looking for a patriotic piece to perform for an April concert at The Kennedy Center. Fleming, whose husband happens to be a Wahoo, remembered that it was Jefferson’s birth month, and became very intrigued with the idea of performing a piece that would allow audiences to reflect on where they came from.

Bill Barker as Thomas Jefferson and guest conductor Michael Slon
(Photo: Coe Sweet)

Fleming’s agent reached out to Frazier about We Hold These Truths, the first movement of an oratorio he had been working on for more than 10 years, in which he set the words that have formed the cornerstone of America’s democracy to music. The piece grew out of Jefferson’s deep love of music, including the great joy he derived from playing his violin. Frazier began musing on the role this passion may have played in Jefferson’s crafting those fateful words in Philadelphia during the summer of 1776. “What occurred to me,” Frazier said, “was the idea that this pivotal document to the future of our nation and that was so influential to many other nations may have benefitted from musical inspiration. I was imagining him practicing during that 17-day period, or perhaps even taking breaks to clear his mind, and maybe reflecting on what words to use as he played. It was very exciting for me to think of music being a handmaiden to the creation of these words.”

Frazier sent the agent excerpts from the piece, and then, as you often do in these situations, he waited. Then he waited some more. Several months later Fleming’s agent said the singer indeed wanted to perform it on her April concert. She would go on to perform it a dozen more times over the next several years on stages around the nation. The whole thing served as a great boost for the piece, said Frazier, who also harbored hopes that the exposure might generate interest in his entire 7-movement oratorio that would carry the founding father’s story from the writing of the Declaration through the end of his life.

His dream, Frazier said, was to introduce the piece to the University of Virginia. Little did he know that introduction would come from the superstar soprano Fleming as well, who was visiting in 2016 and touring the Betsy and John Casteen Arts Grounds when she mentioned the piece to Vice Provost for the Arts Jody Kielbasa, who was at that point just beginning to put together the shell of the Bicentennial Launch Celebration. Kielbasa would soon hear about the piece again from Daniel Sender, Concertmaster of the Charlottesville Symphony*, who had performed it at Monticello. That was more than enough reason for him to go straight to the source.

That November, while on an alumni relations trip to Houston, Texas, Kielbasa met up with the composer and wanted to learn more. Frazier shared a recording made with Fleming and the Seattle Symphony, then told Kielbasa about the last movement he was working on, which would be about Jefferson’s dream, and then founding, of the University of Virginia. He talked about how the movement imagined Jefferson’s last visit to the University, and how it represented an opportunity in the piece to capture some of his final thoughts and hopes and dream for the school and for the nation. “It all comes together,” Frazier said. 

Audience awaiting the start of UVA's Bicentennial Launch Celebration
(Photo: Coe Sweet)

Funny thing is, that is exactly what Kielbasa was thinking too. “I almost couldn’t believe what he was saying.” Kielbasa said. “It all seemed like such a perfect fit and I hadn’t even told him a thing about what we were planning with the Bicentennial Celebration. I mean, what are the odds that all these things would line up like this? It almost seemed too good to be true.” He clued Frazier in on some of the plans and the two began a months-long process with Bicentennial Launch Celebration Creative Director Mitch Levine of discussions on how the piece might fit the evening. Frazier ended up writing a University of Virginia Suite” for the performance, which combined the We Hold These Truths and UVA movements of the Oratorio. He almost could not believe his good fortune. “Here I had been thinking of UVA as the ultimate environment for this piece, and they are telling me we are going to be performing it in front of the Rotunda for 20,000 people!”

michael slon

As it turned out, the piece would open the evening, setting the tone for a multimedia performance that featured internationally-acclaimed recording artists like Leslie Odom, Jr., Andra Day, and The Goo Goo Dolls along with more than 800 UVA performers. It would be played by the Charlottesville Symphony, featuring narration by noted Jefferson portrayer Bill Barker, soloists Janice Chandler-Eteme and Glenn Seven Allen, and it would feature a choral part written just for the evening that would be beautifully performed by the University Singers. 

“The U-Singers were fantastic,” Frazier said. “I was so glad to be introduced to that choir. They sang better than I ever imagined that any professional choir would. I think part of it was the enthusiasm that a student might bring to the table when singing about their school in this spectacular setting. There is a camaraderie and friendship, and they fully embraced every word.”

The University Singers and the Charlottesville Symphonyperforming We Hold These Truths with soloists Janice Chandler-Eteme, Glenn Seven Allen, narrator Bill Barker and guest conductor Michael Slon.
(Photo: Sanjay Suchak)

The artistic experience of being part of a new work like this one was invaluable for the singers, said University Singers conductor Michael Slon. “It is always a fantastic experience when the students get a chance to interact directly with the composer and hear feedback on the music, as well as getting to be a part of these moments of evolution that are happening very much in real time. And on top of that, what an incredible honor it was to be asked to be a part of this wonderful Bicentennial Launch Celebration and sing Todd’s beautiful setting of Jefferson’s incredible words from the steps of the Rotunda. We were all very aware that it may be another 200 years before there is another performance like that!”

Soloists Janice Chandler-Eteme and Glenn Seven Allen with guest conductor Michael Slon.
(Photo: Dan Addison)

The Charlottesville Symphony reprised the piece for its own season in November, and Frazier returned to participate in the performances at Cabell Hall and at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Charlottesville.

'This piece gets at the fundamental concept of where we all come from, the fundamental challenges and opportunities that come along with freedom'
j. todd frazier

Frazier agreed that while the evening will be hard to top, he sees the piece as having life beyond it. He laughs as he remembers the feelings of the evening. “I tell my friends, this is it for me. How can you beat that?” Yet despite its UVA roots, Frazier feels, and many of the audience members and artists expressed, there is a universality to the piece and to Jefferson’s words that may well encourage other orchestras and universities to explore the piece as well. 

“The University of Virginia led America to the idea of having a state school that was not supported by or tied to the church,” he said. “The concept was absolutely unique. We know now that this was because he felt religion was such an important and personal thing that it should never be dictated by a government or an institution, which is a really beautiful thing. It set the precedent for other state schools to be founded on the pursuit of knowledge. This piece gets at the fundamental concept of where we all come from, the fundamental challenges and opportunities that come along with freedom.”

The level of coordination it took to pull the whole thing off still amazes Frazier even all these months later. “Such incredible care was put into this by so many people,” he said. “We worked so closely with Mitch on the dramatic pacing of the piece, and how Bill Barker’s words would be incorporated for maximum impact. We worked so closely that I proudly thanked several of the people involved with the production in the score as collaborators.”

~John Kelly 

*Correction: In the print version of the UVA Arts Magazine Volume 8, Daniel Sender was erroneously identified as the UVA Concertmaster. He is, in fact, the Concertmaster of the Charlottesville Symphony, Charlottesville Opera and the Virginia Consort.

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