Leading American orchestras, instrumentalists, and wind ensembles around the world have performed the music of Chicago based composer James M. Stephenson, both to critical praise and the delight of audiences. The Boston Herald raved about “straightforward, unabashedly beautiful sounds,” suggesting “Stephenson deserves to be heard again and again!” A formal sense of melody and tonality characterize his music, each embedded in a contemporary soundscape. These qualities, coupled with the composer’s keen ability to write to each occasion, have led to a steady stream of commissions and ongoing projects.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Riccardo Muti, Zell Music Director, premiered Jim’s “astonishingly inventive” (Musical America) bass trombone concerto in June, 2019, with Charles Vernon as soloist. Also in 2019, Jim’s “Symphony #3 – VISIONS” was premiered at the University of Miami, and subsequently recorded by the Lake Forest Symphony. Jim has been recently commissioned by the San Francisco Ballet for a new 30-minute ballet for premiere in 2021. Additionally, he was just named “Musical Collaborator” with the Grand Rapids Symphony for the 20-21 season, which includes the creation of a special concert with violinist Joshua Bell and soprano Larissa Martinez. In addition to a Portland Youth Philharmonic commission, other upcoming projects include a commission with the Cincinnati Pops and Buffalo Philharmonic, another Marine Band premiere, a guitar concerto, piano concerto, and a concert opera for the International Chamber Artists, where Jim has just been named Composer-in-Residence.
A second bass trombone concerto received its orchestral premiere with the St. Louis Symphony/Robertson and soloist Gerry Pagano, in 2017. Under the direction of Col. Jason Fettig, “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band commissioned a symphony (the composer’s second in this genre) and gave the work its premiere in 2016 at the prestigious Midwest Clinic, and subsequently recorded the work. That Symphony #2 – VOICES – has gone on to win the two most prestigious concert band awards: the National Band Association’s Revelli Award in 2017, and the American Bandmasters Association’s Sousa/Ostwald award in 2018, and continues to be performed worldwide to great acclaim. Additionally, Compose Yourself!, Stephenson’s landmark young-audience work has now been performed over 300 times since its creation in 2002, engaging children in New Zealand and Canada and across the U.S. Additional premieres include Carnegie Hall in May, 2017 (Chamber Music Charleston) and in 2019 (University of Kentucky); and in the summers, 2017 and 2019, the Music Academy of the West premiered “Martha Uncaged” and “Cocoon” respectively – with the composer conducting. 2017 also saw the west-coast premiere of his violin concerto at the famed Cabrillo Music Festival. The 2017-18 saw a new “Low brass concerto” with the Minnesota Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä (Jim’s second premiere with that orchestra and Maestro Vänskä). Vänskä followed up on the premiere by personally commissioning a new chamber work – pHactors – from Jim. Stephenson’s “Liquid Melancholy” CD, on the Cedille label, consisting entirely of clarinet music recorded by the Chicago Symphony’s John Bruce Yeh, garnered a Grammy nomination for “Best Engineered, Classical” in 2019. His powerful and emotional “Concero for Hope” (trumpet concerto #3) was recorded with the Memphis Symphony (Robert Moody) and soloist Ryan Anthony.
The Devil’s Tale (2013), a “palindrama” sequel to Stravinsky’s famous “Soldier’s Tale” has become a highlight of Stephenson’s extensive chamber music output, having already garnered much critical praise for its recent recording (“a most remarkable work” – Fanfare Magazine) and numerous performances, including at noteworthy venues such as Ravinia and Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center.
James M. Stephenson came late to his full-time composing career, having first earned a degree from the New England Conservatory in trumpet performance, and then going on to perform 17 seasons in the Naples Philharmonic in Florida. This path has made his voice truly individual and his life’s work all the more remarkable. Colleagues and friends encouraged his earliest efforts and enthusiasm followed from all directions. As his catalog grew, so did his reputation. That catalog now boasts concertos and sonatas for nearly every instrument, earning him the moniker “The Concerto King” from Chicago Symphony clarinetist John Yeh. The vast majority of those compositions came through commissions by and for major symphony principal players, in Chicago, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Minnesota, Washington DC, St. Louis, Oregon, Milwaukee, and Dallas, among others. A major break came from the Minnesota Commissioning Club, which led to two works (violin concertos) receiving premieres in 2012—by Jennifer Frautschi with the Minnesota Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä and by Alex Kerr with the Rhode Island Philharmonic under Larry Rachleff. Other international soloists for whom Stephenson has composed include saxophonist Branford Marsalis and trumpeter Rex Richardson, whose concerto has been performed on five continents. With such prolific output, Stephenson’s music is well represented in recordings. Nearly all of his solo brass works (over 50) have been professionally recorded, and in total, his extensive catalog for all instruments can be heard on over 30 CDs.
James Stephenson is also a highly sought-after arranger and conductor, rounding out his constantly busy schedule. His arrangements have been performed/recorded/broadcast by virtually every major orchestra in the country, including the Boston Pops, Cincinnati Pops, New York Pops and more. On the podium, Stephenson has led orchestras in Chattanooga, Bozeman, Charleston, Ft. Myers, Modesto, and Wyoming, in addition to numerous concert bands. With the Lake Forest Symphony, near his Illinois home, he has not only conducted, but will celebrate his 10th anniversary as Composer-in-Residence during the 2019/20 season.
Jim originally hails from the Greater Chicago area, as does his wife Sally. In 2007 the couple, along with their four children, returned to the region to pursue the life they now share.