Ensembles Pay Tribute to Asbury Prof
James Curnow still writes music the old fashioned way.
“I still use pencil and paper. I still love it,” says Curnow, Asbury’s composer in residence emeritus, who prefers his simple method of writing music to today’s more modern computerized music engraving programs.
With just pencil and paper, Curnow has composed an impressive collection of music for concert bands, brass bands and other choral and orchestral ensembles, pieces that have been performed around the world, making him perhaps the most widely performed living composer in Kentucky.
And local music lovers will soon have a chance to hear Curnow’s work in a free concert by three brass ensembles. The Lexington, Derby (Louisville) and Cincinnati Brass Bands will salute the composer on Nov. 7 at the Singletary Center for the Arts at the University of Kentucky in Lexington (7 p.m.).
A former Asbury student and professor, Curnow is well known to many at the university. Those who have worked alongside or studied under him are excited about the concert in his honor and praise his contributions as a composer, professor and friend.
“Jim has a very marked ability to write beautifully colorful scores that suit the instruments of those ensembles ideally,” says Dr. Ronald Holz, a professor of music at Asbury and director of the Lexington Brass Band, who has known Curnow for more than 30 years.
“Jim is able to write works that are both intellectually challenging and formally sophisticated while still being accessible to the average listener,” Holz says. “You don’t need a Ph.D. to listen to Jim’s music, but a Ph.D. will enjoy his music.”
Another fan is former student Shawn Okpebholo, ’03, who studied under Curnow at Asbury and now works as a music and composition professor at Wheaton College. Studying with him, says Okpebholo, “was an absolute privilege, nothing short of inspiring, rewarding and, simply put, fun.”
“He was the primary figure in not only my development as a composer but also as a person,” Okpebholo says.
The Lexington concert in Curnow’s honor will feature some of Curnow’s best brass and percussion compositions. These include Olympic Fanfare and Theme for the Olympic Flag, which were commissioned pieces for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
Host ensemble Lexington Brass Band will begin the concert with a performance of Curnow’s most recent brass works including Variations for Brass and Percussion: Ellacombe Chronicles. The Derby Brass Band, directed by John Jones, will follow. Its set will include Concertpiece for Cornet and Band featuring University of Louisville professor Michael Tunnell as principal cornetist. The Cincinnati Brass Band, directed by Anita Cocker Hunt, will then perform its set. It will feature the Appalachian Mountain Folk Song Suite. Curnow will conduct one piece in each ensemble’s set as well as the final set of the combined bands.
Curnow now lives in Nicholasville, Ky., but he was born and raised in Michigan. After studying at Asbury, he graduated from Wayne State University, earned his graduate degree at Michigan State University and then began a career in music education.
In addition to teaching at Asbury, he taught in middle and high schools as well as at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. Curnow has also been commissioned to write more than 200 works and has published more than 400.
“I just love to write,” he says. “I’m always honored when somebody asks me to write a piece as well. It’s always most enjoyable.”
Curnow is currently working on three concert band commissions and working as president, composer and educational consultant for Curnow Music Press Inc., which publishes music for concert and brass bands. He also serves as the editor for all of the publications of the Salvation Army in Atlanta.
Those who plan to attend the Lexington concert in his honor can look forward to a rewarding evening, says Holz.
“They will be struck by the richness of the sound that these bands produce,” says Holz. “All three together will be rather impressive.”
Curnow is looking forward to the evening, as well.
“I’m honored to have it happen,” he says, “and really looking forward to it.”