Adams, Leslie 1932–
Leslie Adams 1932–
The career of the Cleveland, Ohio-based composer Leslie Adams shows that the conventional categories of conservative and modernist fail to capture all of the forces at work in African-American classical music. Adams has worked in a style marked by the use of classical music’s traditional harmonic system, with the result that his works have enjoyed considerable appeal among ordinary classical concertgoers. Yet his music is also infused with specifically African-American elements such as the heavy use of percussion rhythms and, in Adams’s opera Blake, of improvisation. His treatment of these elements is completely distinctive, and thus Adams has been seen as both a conservative and as a complete original.
Born Harrison Leslie Adams in Cleveland on December 30, 1932, Adams grew up in the city’s Glenville neighborhood and attended Glenville High School. He has continued in adulthood to live in his home neighborhood, although he left for several long stretches in order to study or take a job. He attended nearby Oberlin College Conservatory, long a pioneer in educating African Americans who have gone on to make an impact in the classical world. He earned a bachelor’s degree in music from Oberlin in 1955. While in college Adams studied voice, piano, and composition. In 1954 he wrote a full-length ballet, A Kiss in Xanadu, and his interest in percussion textures was first demonstrated in a 1955 piece called The Congo, which was performed by a speaker, speaking group, and percussion ensemble.
After college Adams headed for New York City, where he scratched out a living as a ballet accompanist, all the while working to present his music to the world as a concert pianist and freelance composer. He continued to study composition in the 1960s, working privately with composers Robert Starer and Vittorio Giannini. In the early part of that decade he wrote several works for small ensembles in conventional classical forms, and the performances gained him positive attention. These included a Sonata for Violin and Piano, a Sonata for Horn and Piano, and a Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.
During these years Adams also wrote two sets of songs that have been performed many times over the ensuing years in vocal recitals: Five Songs on Texts by Edna
At a Glance…
Born Harrison Leslie Adams, on December 30, 1932, in Cleveland, OH, Education: Oberlin College Conservatory, BM, 1955; California State University at Long Beach, MM, 1967; Ohio State University, PhD, 1973; private composition studies with various instructors.
Career: Worked as ballet accompanist, New York City, late 1950s; composed and performed on piano; Soehl Junior High School, Linden, NJ, vocal music instructor, 1962-63; choir director, secondary schools, Raton, NM, 1966-67; Florida A & M University, assistant professor of music, 1968; University of Kansas, professor of music and director of choral clinics, 1970-78; returned to full-time composing and moved back to Cleveland, 1978; composed opera Blake, 1986; numerous commissions from orchestras in United States and abroad.
Selected memberships: American Choral Directors Association; American Guild of Organists.
Selected awards: Scholar-in-residence, Rockefeller Foundation Study and Conference Center, Bellagio, Italy, 1979; Yaddo Artists Colony fellowship, 1980, 1984; Cleveland Foundation Fellow, 1980.
Addresses: Home—c/o Creative Arts, Inc., 9409 Kempton Ave., Cleveland, OH 44108. Website— http://www.under.org/cpcc/ladams.htm.
St. Vincent Millay and a set of six African-American Songs. Millay was a white 1920s poet whose seemingly traditional romantic subject matter carried an undercurrent of politically aware, somewhat feministoriented content, and Adams was attracted by the combination. One song from the Millay group, “For You There is No Song,” was included in two anthologies widely used by voice students, and has become one of Adams’s best-known works. “Picturesque is the best word one may use to describe the piano treatment of these songs,” noted the website of the African American Art Song Alliance. “Much like the songs of [German composer Robert] Schumann, the piano intercedes to complete fragments of thoughts where words fail.”
In 1962 Adams accepted a position as a voice teacher at Soehl Junior High School in Linden, New Jersey. He then returned home to Cleveland in 1964 and served as musical director at a theatrical organization called Karamu House. In the mid-1960s he decided to return to higher education studies, and earned a master’s degree in composition from California State University in 1967, financing part of his studies by working as a high school choir director in Raton, New Mexico. In 1968 Adams taught music at Florida A & M University, and also enrolled in the Ph.D. program at Ohio State University. He studied composition there as well, and earned a Ph.D. in 1973 after completing his written dissertation, titled The Problems of Composing Choral Music for High School Use.
Adams joined the faculty of the University of Kansas in 1970, where he remained for several years, advancing to the rank of associate professor and directing the university’s choir. During the 1970s, however, performances of his many musical compositions were on the increase, and Adams decided to make the leap and become a full-time composer—a rare decision for a composer of any ethnic background in the United States, where government funding for the arts is not a high priority. Since the late 1970s he has been able to work successfully as a composer, although he has also founded new musical organizations and has been much in demand for residencies as a composer, workshop leader, and church musician.
After the decision to pursue his work as a composer, Adams once again returned home to Cleveland, and then embarked on specialized studies of orchestration with Marcel Dick and several other composers. Most of his compositions up to that point had been for solo singers, choirs, or small instrumental ensembles, but Adams now began to work more intensively on the larger canvases of music for symphony orchestra and, eventually, opera. His efforts were rewarded by prestigious fellowships at the Rockefeller Foundation Study and Conference Center in Bellagio, Italy, in 1979, and at the Yaddo Artists Colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, in 1980 and 1984. Commissions for new pieces began to flow Adams’s way, first from smaller entities such as Cuyahoga Community College, for which Adams wrote the orchestral piece Ode to Life, and later from the city’s flagship musical organization, the Cleveland Orchestra, for which he composed Western Adventure in 1994.
Adams’s orchestral works began to be performed around the world, by ensembles ranging from the Detroit Symphony and Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestras, to the Prague Radio Symphony in the Czech Republic, to the Iceland Symphony. He continued to create popular choral works, including the choralorchestral cantata The Righteous Man in 1985, which commemorated the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The Cleveland Plain Dealer praised that work as a “compassionate fabric of choral ideas amid noble orchestral commentary.” In the 1980s much of Adams’s time was taken up by work on his four-act opera Blake, which was initially performed in separate stages in the 1980s, and was then premiered in its entirety by the Baltimore Municipal Opera in 1997.
Blake was based on an incomplete 1859 novel by Martin Delaney, a proto-black nationalist who fought for the Union during the Civil War. The novel deals with a fictional slave insurrection centered in Virginia’s Great Dismal Swamp. Against this backdrop Adams explores two slave characters, Blake and Miranda, a husband and wife who are separated when their master gives Miranda away to a visitor, and who try to find each other once again. Adams’s score used a variety of traditional operatic conventions, such as the association of specific themes and melodic fragments with individual characters as the action progresses.
In the opera Adams depicted slave cohesion with the use of a separate percussion section, including three conga drums, a cowbell, a clave, and other Caribbean percussion instruments. Adams called for improvisation from the orchestral musicians. “This will allow for the musicians to bring their own passions to bear on the score,” Adams said in an interview quoted in the International Dictionary of Black Composers. He pointed out that “the original folk approach was certainly not sitting there in front of a musical score but bringing to bear the performers’ own emotions to their instrumental expression.”
Blake was presented to audiences in stages, with various sections played in concerts, mostly at educational institutions, for several years before its actual 1997 premiere. This innovative approach reflected Adams’s thinking about the importance of music education and its role in generating an audience for new classical compositions. As a result of his work, by the early 2000s Adams had become a fixture of Cleveland’s musical life, as well as an artist who had influenced numerous performers through his compositions and educational efforts. Many of those musicians gathered for a large party celebrating his 70th birthday in 2002, and the Cleveland Public Library compiled an archive of his manuscripts and other musical materials.
Five Songs on Texts by Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1960.
African-American Songs, 1961.
Man’s Presence (for chorus and orchestra), 1975.
The Righteous Man (for chorus and orchestra), 1985.
Blake (opera, composed 1986, premiered 1997).
Western Adventure (for orchestra), 1994.
Anderson, Ruth E., compiler, Contemporary American Composers: A Biographical Dictionary, G. K. Hall, 1976.
Floyd, Samuel A., ed., International Dictionary of Black Composers, Fitzroy Dearborn, 1999.
Sadie, Stanley, ed., New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., Macmillan, 2001.
American Record Guide, March-April 1998, p. 275.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), March 13, 1994, p. 14; December 6, 2002, p. Friday-69; December 27, 2002, p. Friday-44.
“A Brief Bio of the Composer,” Vivace Press, www.vivacepress.com/342.html (March 27, 2003).
“H. Leslie Adams Biography,” www.under.org/cpcc/ladams.htm (March 27, 2003).
“Leslie Adams,” African American Art Song Alliance, http://www.unio.edu/taylord/adams.bio.html (March 27, 2003).
“Leslie Adams,” Sigma Alpha Iota Philanthropies, Inc., www.sai-national.org/phil/composers/ladams.html (March 27, 2003).
—James M. Manheim
"Adams, Leslie 1932–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 18, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/adams-leslie-1932
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