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Two Composers To Take on JFK Assassination Next Year

by Jerome Weeks 12 Dec 2012 2:14 PM

Next November, Dallas will hear two new classical works marking the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination – one by an 18-year-old Chinese-American prodigy, the other from a Grammy-winning composer.


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Plans for marking the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination next year have turned to music. First, it was the Dallas Symphony commissioning a new work. Now, the Nasher Sculpture Center has announced it’ll present a new piece as well. KERA’s Jerome Weeks talked with both composers.

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In their bare outlines, the two new works certainly seem alike in commemorating the Kennedy assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963. They’re both classical pieces. They’re both intended to be around 20 minutes long, give or take a few minutes. Both composers have visited Dallas and toured the Sixth Floor Museum. And both have set out to avoid the conventional trappings of a great man’s memorial. They’re not writing big choral requiems or dirges.

Beyond that, the two works and their composers are a study in contrasts. The Dallas Symphony commissioned Conrad Tao, a Chinese-American prodigy who has already made a name for himself as both a pianist and violinist. He gave his first recital at age 4. But Tao’s also been composing the past several years — including songs, piano solos, a string quartet and a piano trio.

Only 18 years old, Tao obviously has no personal memory of the assassination, no direct, emotional connection with the events in Dallas.

“Exactly,” he says. ” I am trying to think about the reverberations of this event on our lives today.”

For Tao, the commission is not about re-living the motorcade, the shooting or the funeral. It’s about our responses, about the shattering effects then and the long-term echoes – 50 years later. For Tao, the JFK assassination has become pretty much the air we breathe.

“I’m a first-generation, American-born Chinese,” he says, “but at the same time, I don’t think it’s accurate to say that I have no connection with JFK’s legacy or JFK’s history. I mean, it’s something that I’ve grown up hearing about, it’s something I’ve grown up experiencing.”

That’s why, for his title Tao chose a line from President Kennedy’s inaugural address: The World Is Very Different Now. The Dallas Symphony won a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for the premiere. It will be a big step for Tao: It’s his largest-scale work, harnessing an entire symphony orchestra.

In contrast, the Nasher Sculpture Center has co-commissioned a string quartet from Steven Mackey — along with Carnegie Hall and the music program, Yellow Barn. It will premiere at Carnegie Hall in New York in February, and then in November, it will be part of Soundings, the small-scale but adventurous music series at the Nasher. Mackey is a Grammy Award-winning composer and electric guitarist whose work, in fact, Conrad Tao admires. Mackey is known for including electric guitar in classical settings and for what he calls a “playful spirit” that leads to unconventional treatments. On the more serious side, he recently composed a Violin Concerto called Beautiful Passing — about his mother’s death.

Mackey is excited, he says, about working with the acclaimed Brentano String Quartet: “I heard them play Beethoven Opus 131 a year and a half ago, and I thought, ‘Man, I want to write something knowing that that’s what they’re capable of.’”

The group has recorded Mackey’s quartets, but this is the first work he’s composed expressly for them. They’ll play it along with clarinetist Charles Neidich and pianist Seth Knopp, the director of Soundings.

But unlike Tao, Mackey is 56, and he has vivid memories of that November day. He was home sick from school and heard his mother and a neighbor burst into tears. His parents were both staunch supporters of Kennedy.

“I think that’s one of the reasons I was intrigued from the beginning,” he says. “Right from their request, I thought this taps into some deep stuff for me.”

But during his research, Mackey found his focus shifting. He says, growing up, to him, Jackie Kennedy was just another jet-set celebrity. But he learned about how she handled herself through all the horrors and the way she bore up during the state funeral. He began seeing the assassination as a very personal tragedy and a family trauma as well as a national nightmare.

Mackey has titled his work One Red Rose. He says it was inspired by the photo of the Kennedys being greeted at Love Field. In the image, Mrs. Kennedy is being handed a big bouquet of roses.

“And later, after Kennedy was rushed into the emergency room, a Secret Service agent combed the limousine for any bullets or anything, and all he found on the floorboard was one, blood-soaked red rose.”

  • Eventide from Conrad Tao’s Piano Trio:

  • Excerpt from Steven Mackey’s Violin Concerto:

The full release from the Nasher:

Nasher Sculpture Center’s Soundings Premieres Program Honoring President John F. Kennedy with New Work by American Composer Steven Mackey

One Red Rose co-commissioned for the Brentano String Quartet by the Nasher with Carnegie Hall and Yellow Barn. 

DALLAS, Texas (December 12, 2012) – The Nasher Sculpture Center will honor President Kennedy on the 50th anniversary of his death with a Soundings concert that will present an important new work by internationally renowned composer Steven Mackey. One Red Rose is written for the Brentano String Quartet in commemoration of this anniversary, and is commissioned by the Nasher (Dallas, TX) with Carnegie Hall (New York, NY) and Yellow Barn (Putney, VT).

The fourth season of the Nasher Sculpture Center’s groundbreaking new music series will coincide with its tenth anniversary and the premiere of this program, uniquely crafted in-residence at Yellow Barn to honor the president and his legacy, and will be a signature component of the museum’s milestone year.

“John F. Kennedy embodied his time, even as he transformed it. The Nasher is privileged to host this signal artistic event that pays tribute to the accomplishments of President Kennedy, to the great hope he inspired, while acknowledging the profound grief of his death. A hallmark of the Kennedy White House was the vivid presence of the arts, so it is especially appropriate that the arts now play a role in honoring his memory,” says Nasher Director Jeremy Strick.

The concert will be held on November 23, 2013 in the Nasher Sculpture Center’s intimate performance hall with celebrated musicians; the Brentano String Quartet, clarinetist Charles Neidich and pianist Seth Knopp.  Mr. Mackey’s One Red Rose will be performed along with seminal works by Olivier Messiaen and John Cage. An encore performance of One Red Rose, will take place the following evening, November 24, 2013, at the Sixth Floor Museum. Both concerts will include a discussion with the audience.

“In our history there are moments and lives too important to be left untouched by artistic illumination,” said Soundings Artistic Director Seth Knopp.  “John F. Kennedy once said, ‘A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.’ With music that reveals infinite meaning in a single moment, and truths only understood within the greater expanse of time, the Nasher Sculpture Center’s Soundings joins the city of Dallas and the nation, in honoring President Kennedy on the 50th anniversary of his death.”

Grammy Award-winning composer Steven Mackey adds:  “One Red Rose aspires to honor the memory of President Kennedy and acknowledge the tragedy endured by his family, friends, and country. My first job is to craft a satisfying musical narrative with sound and time but I have tried to connect the music to this watershed event in significant ways.”

As Mr. Mackey describes, the title of the piece comes from a blood-soaked red rose that had fallen from the bouquet that former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy had been carrying. The score features three parts that Mr. Mackey calls “Short Studies,” “Fugue and Fantasy,” and “Anthem and Aria” that, in part, recreate the sequence of events on that horrific day and in the days following the tragedy.

Says Nicola Longford, Executive Director of The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza: “Our collection is inspiring a tremendous body of work being produced to commemorate the 50th anniversary. We are particularly delighted to be in partnership with the Nasher for this significant tribute, which promises to be a truly powerful creative expression.”

Tickets will be available as part of the 2013-14 Soundings season ticket packages available May 1, 2013. For more information, visit

About Seth Knopp, Artistic Director, Soundings:

Seth Knopp, Artistic Director and pianist (Baltimore, MD) is a founding member of the Peabody Trio, recipient of the 1989 Naumburg Award. Since making their Alice Tully Hall debut in 1990, the trio has performed on the most important chamber music series, nationally and internationally. Their reputation as champions of new music garnered them an invitation to the first Biennale for contemporary music, Tempus Fugit, in Tel Aviv and since that time, the opportunity to commission and perform the music of many of today’s most inspired musical voices. The ensemble is in residence at the Peabody Conservatory, where Seth serves on the piano and chamber music faculties. He is the Artistic Director of Yellow Barn, an international center for chamber music, which brings musicians and audiences to Putney, Vermont for its festivals each summer, and to its residencies throughout the year. Seth studied with Leonard Shure at New England Conservatory, Nathan Schwartz at San Francisco Conservatory, and with Leon Fleisher.  His solo and chamber music performances can be heard on the Artek, Koch, and New World Records labels.


Steven Mackey, Composer, One Red Rose:

Steven Mackey, composer (Princeton, NJ) was playing the electric guitar in rock bands based in northern California when he started including the electric guitar and vernacular music influence in his concert music. He regularly performs his own work, including two electric guitar concertos and numerous solo and chamber works. Steven’s orchestral music has been performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, San Francisco and Chicago Symphonies, BBC Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Austrian Radio Symphony, Sydney Symphony, and Tokyo Philharmonic. As a guitarist, Steven has performed his chamber music with the Kronos Quartet, Arditti Quartet, London Sinfonietta, Nexttime Ensemble, Psappha, and Joey Baron. A Grammy Award-winning musician, Steven has received awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim fellowship, the Stoeger Prize from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and the Kennedy Center Friedheim Award. He has been composer-in-residence at major music festivals, including Tanglewood, Aspen, and the Holland Festival.  Steven is currently Professor of Music and chair of the Department of Music at Princeton University, where he has been a member of the faculty since 1985.  He was the recipient of Princeton University’s first Distinguished Teaching Award in 1991.


Charles Neidich, Clarinet:

Charles Neidich, clarinet (New York, NY) has performed throughout Europe, Asia, and the United Sates, regularly collaborating with the Juilliard, Guarneri, Brentano, American, Mendelssohn, Carmina, Colorado, and Cavani String Quartets. He has appeared as a soloist with ensembles including the Saint Louis Symphony, Minneapolis Symphony, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, I Musici di Montreal, Tafelmusik, Handel/Haydn Society, Royal Philharmonic, and National Symphony of Taiwan among others. As a conductor, engagements have included appearances with the Helsinki, New World, and San Diego Symphonies, and the Kirishima Festival in Japan. After getting his Bachelor’s degree at Yale University where he majored in Anthropology, Charles went to the Moscow State Conservatory as the first recipient of a Fulbright grant to study in the Soviet Union. A leading scholar of period instrument performance practice, Charles was one of the first soloists to improvise cadenzas and ornament classical concertos. He has performed his restoration of the Mozart Concerto throughout the world both on modern and period instruments. He has worked extensively with living composers and have premiered works by Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter, Edison Denisov, Helmut Lachenmann, William Schuman, Ralph Shapey, and others. Charles is on the faculties of the Juilliard School, Queens College, the Manhattan School of Music, and the Mannes College of Music. His recordings are available on the Sony Classical, Sony Vivarte, Deutsche Grammophon, Musicmasters, Hyperion, and Bridge labels.

Brentano String Quartet:

The Brentano String Quartet (New York, NY) has appeared throughout the world since its inception in 1992 at venues such as Carnegie Hall and Alice Tully Hall in New York, the Library of Congress in Washington, Wigmore Hall in London, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the Konzerthaus in Vienna, Suntory Hall in Tokyo, and the Sydney Opera House. The Brentanos enjoy exploring repertoire that pre-dates the medium of the string quartet, among them the madrigals of Gesualdo, fantasias of Purcell, and secular vocal works of Josquin.  They have worked closely with the most important composers of our time, among them Elliot Carter, Charles Wuorinen, Chou Wen-chung, Steven Mackey, Bruce Adolphe, and György Kurtág. They have collaborated with artists such as soprano Jessye Norman, pianist Richard Goode, and pianist Mitsuko Uchida, and have been invited to perform with the competitors in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2013. The Brentanos have been the Resident Quartet at Princeton University since 1999. Their recordings can be heard on the Aeon and Albany labels. The quartet is named for Antonie Brentano, whom many scholars consider to be Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved,” the intended recipient of his famous love confession.

About the Nasher Sculpture Center:
Open since 2003 and located in the heart of the Dallas Arts District, the Nasher Sculpture Center is home to one of the finest collections of modern and contemporary sculptures in the world, the Raymond and Patsy Nasher Collection, featuring more than 300 masterpieces by Calder, Giacometti, Matisse, Picasso, Rodin, and more. The longtime dream of the late Raymond and Patsy Nasher, the museum was designed by world-renowned architect Renzo Piano in collaboration with landscape architect Peter Walker.

Hailed by the “USA Today” as one of the great sculpture gardens where art enhances nature, the roofless museum seamlessly integrates the indoor galleries with the outdoor spaces creating a museum experience unlike any other in the world. On view in the light-filled galleries and amid the landscaped grounds are rotating works from the Collection, as well as blockbuster exhibitions and one-of-a-kind installations by the most celebrated artists of our times. In addition to the indoor and outdoor gallery spaces, the Center contains an auditorium, education and research facilities, a cafe, and a store.

The Nasher brings the best of contemporary culture to Dallas through special programs designed to engage visitors, including artist talks, lecture programs, contemporary music concerts, educational classes and exclusive member events.

The Nasher Sculpture Center is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11 am to 5 pm and until 11 pm for special events, and from 10 am to 5 pm on the first Saturday of each month.  Admission is $10 for adults, $7 for seniors, $5 for students, and free for members and children 12 and under, and includes access to special exhibitions.  For more information, visit