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President’s Day: Composer blends Obama, Lincoln, and Roosevelt speeches with orchestral music

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A Southland composer has set out to introduce and remind listeners about the fundamental beliefs of American democracy. He's doing so through a symphonic work that blends soloists, a choir, a full orchestra, with the speeches of two iconic presidents - and the present one. KPCC’s Adolfo Guzman Lopez reports.

UCLA music professor David Lefkowitz composed “Lincoln Echoes” to commemorate the university’s new liberal arts and free institutions center and the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. Lefkowitz said words from this country’s founding document frame the composition. "The first movement is entitled 'Fundamental Freedoms.' So it begins with the choir singing the opening sentence from the Declaration of Independence. 'We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal...'"

Words from an Abraham Lincoln speech echo, and ponder, the founding fathers’ weighty ideal that all men are created equal. "And so they established those great self-evident truths that when, in the distant future, some man, some faction, some interest, should set up the doctrine that none but rich men, or no one but white men, or none but Anglos-Saxon white men, were entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Lefkowitz is far from the first composer to test the interplay between music and the statements of national leaders. Plenty have done it for laughs. Guitarist Steven Drozd’s put to music words from a press conference in which former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld appeared to ramble about "known unknowns."

More than 60 years ago modernist composer Aaron Copland created “Lincoln Portrait” to uplift Americans in the months following the beginning of World War II. Copland interspersed grandiose harmonies with excerpts from Lincoln speeches, including the Gettysburg Address.

Unlike Copland, composer David Lefkowitz wanted to pair Lincoln’s words with those of other presidents. He combed through all the presidential speeches since Lincoln in search of words that sang. Franklin Roosevelt and Barack Obama filled that bill. In the composition, the narrator speaks Lincoln’s words while a tenor sings those of Roosevelt and a baritone sings Obama’s parts.

The piece’s fourth movement explores the economic turmoil that affected each presidency. Roosevelt's words are sung by tenor John Duykers. "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."

UCLA music professor Michael Dean sings President Obama's speeches. "We measure progress by how many people can find a job that pays the mortgage... the fundamentals we use to measure economic strength are whether we are living up to that fundamental promise that has made this country great."

Copland offered a polite back-and-forth between Lincoln’s words and the composition. Lefkowitz has staged a rhetorical wrestling match across time between Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Obama. It’s a friendly bout in which the oratory and instrumentation demonstrate the fundamental values of American democracy.

Lefkowitz recognized that Obama’s a polarizing political figure – and he said he didn’t include the 44th president for partisan reasons. The composer combed through the speeches of “The Great Communicator,” President Ronald Reagan. While Lefkowitz regarded them as sharp, he didn’t consider Reagan’s speeches as stunningly gorgeous as those of Obama and the other presidents.

Besides, Lefkowitz said, he chose the current president’s election night and inaugural address speeches, and others, that touched on bedrock principles that transcend partisan politics. "He’s talking about American values and I don’t think that there’s anything in this list – honesty, hard work, courage, fair play, tolerance, curiosity, loyalty, and patriotism. You run those eight items or so by any die-hard conservative and I don’t think that they would complain."

Composer Lefkowitz calls “Lincoln Echoes” a secular cantata. In its 18th century form the cantata was the ultimate expression of Christian religious beliefs as turmoil challenged those beliefs. Lefkowitz said his new work calls on faithful adherents to American democracy to return to the history and pillars of governance that have guided this country for 233 years.