The concert at the Congregation Shaar Hashomayim showing the members of the orchestra in front of a film projection and the audience.
Choosing the Three-Letter Response Over the Two-Letter One

Choosing the Three-Letter Response Over the Two-Letter One

The concert at the Congregation Shaar Hashomayim showing the members of the orchestra in front of a film projection and the audience.

The concert at the Congregation Shaar Hashomayim

The phone call went something like this:

Synagogue in Montreal: “Jim, we have an event coming up.”

Me: “Sure, what’s up?” (It was okay to be casual, as I had worked with them before.)

Them: “We are going to be honoring several composers whose music was lost during Kristallnacht. You know, composers like Lewandowski, Rosenblatt, Alman…

We’d like for you to orchestrate about ten SATB choral scores, including two cantor soloists.

And we’ll need them in about two weeks.”

Me (thinking “Two weeks? What?!!”): “Sounds great! Count me in!” (Nodding as if I knew those composers, even though it was a phone call and no one could see me…)

And back to reality:

I had two issues: 1.) I had never heard of any of these composers. Shame on me. 2.) I’m not Jewish, and I honestly didn’t know much, if anything, about the history of the music with which I was about to be involved.

And, okay, a third issue: TWO WEEKS??!! Ten scores? Roughly sixty minutes of music? And I was about to head to Casper during one of those weeks to conduct my young audience piece with the Wyoming Symphony. And they didn’t even have the music ready to send to me yet.

But I wasn’t worried, and quite frankly was very excited to be a part of the project. Perhaps some history will reveal why.

There was a very distinct point at the beginning of my composing career when a decision changed absolutely everything for me. I was a trumpeter in the Naples (Florida) Philharmonic, and I was still planning to be a professional trumpeter my entire life. But one day, Erich Kunzel, our newly appointed pops conductor, having heard that I had messed around with some brass quintet arranging, approached me and asked me if I wanted to arrange “Here Comes Santa Claus” for full orchestra, for that year’s Holiday Pops concert. Without knowing it at the time, here was the moment that would send me down another road. Those ten seconds when he asked me to do this changed the entire course of my life. My future would take time to pan out, of course, but at the moment when I chose the three-letter response instead of the two-letter one, an entirely new career path was set into motion.

I arranged “Here Comes Santa Claus,” and EK (as we all referred to Erich Kunzel) told me immediately what “sucked” (his word, not mine) and what was good. I had put a tango in there and he looked at me like I had four heads. The tango had to go. But he encouraged more than he discouraged. This professional relationship would last ten years, totaling roughly 100 arrangements. Many of them were one-offs, where he would conveniently call just after the birth of my first child, for example, and say, “Jim, I need five charts for 98 Degrees (a late-’90s boy band) for next week. Our manager will be sending them to you first thing tomorrow.” Again I’d give my three-letter answer, and promptly the next morning, I’d get a FedEx package (so exciting) with patched-together scores that I would flesh out, for concerts where absolutely no one would know my role. It would be a distant memory to all just one week later. Other projects would be more meaningful: a Boston Pops TV broadcast, or one of several recordings on which my work would appear with the Cincinnati Pops, or an orchestration that Dmitri Hvorostovsky would sing, or that Pinchas Zukerman would play.

But it was one project in particular that would eventually lead to the phone call cited at the beginning of this essay.

First, however, I think I need to explain why it was so easy for me to say yes to all of these requests. I’m a classically trained trumpeter who went to Interlochen for pretty much my entire childhood, with a one-summer sojourn over to Tanglewood. I’m the kid who erased all of his rock-n-roll tapes (yes, tapes!) upon arrival as a sophomore at the Interlochen Arts Academy, so as to replace them with Interlochen radio broadcasts of all the great live orchestral concerts they would relay through the airwaves. I’m the kid—well, maybe by this point a young adult—who would go to the library at the New England Conservatory and listen to Nathan Milstein playing the complete Bach Sonatas and Partitas until closing on a Friday night, when I might instead have been out doing things that were “more fun.” I was a NERD! Why was I interested in “pops” music at all??!!

The answer has to be: my parents.

I grew up in a house where the grand piano—and many other keyboards—dominated pretty much the entire living space. My dad, having been a dance band pianist in college, would often unwind after his non-musical work by playing show tunes. Those arpeggiated pleasing chords in his left hand with an occasional sharp fifth or flat ninth were always spot-on, but what I’ll never forget is the look of complete enjoyment that was a mainstay on my mother’s face as he played. This was my life as a kid. In addition to all of the “classical juggernauts,” I was constantly engulfed in Gershwin, Kern, Porter, Berlin, etc., which all equaled happiness.

But I’ve digressed long enough. Back to the particular project that led me to the Montreal Synagogue.

EK was doing a Hollywood CD with the Cincinnati Pops, and asked me to score “When You Believe” from The Prince of Egypt by Stephen Schwartz. All I was sent was a CD of the original, and I had to do a “take down” (meaning no music to look at, just listen and write the score). If you don’t know this tune, look it up. Even better yet, if you want to hear my scoring of it, go check it out. I still cry when I hear it. Everything went right with that one. It’s got a huge dramatic ending (which EK always loved), and I played it to the max.

Well, this CD garnered the attention of the former music director at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal, a Mr. Stephen Glass. (Yay—I’m getting to the point of all this!). As it turns out, Stephen is a HUGE film and theater music buff, and he would buy almost every CD that the Cincinnati Pops would churn out. One day, I received a call from Stephen, and he could barely contain his excitement. He couldn’t believe he reached me by phone, and talked to me as if I was a rock-star. (Hmm, this arranging thing was getting kind of fun!) He went on and on about my scoring—he really knew his stuff—and after a while revealed that he would love to engage me to do some work for his synagogue.

His concerts at the synagogue were not your typical “church concerts” that I had experienced. They were highly produced events, with a fully professional orchestra as well as film and lighting cues, where everything was timed out to the second, resulting in a concert similar to an evening at the Oscars. There was sacred music, popular music, some original music (of Stephen’s)—all of which were at the very highest level.

My job would be to score some music much the same as I would have for EK, creating that “sound.” Furthermore, much to my delight, I would be invited up to Montreal to witness the event from a front and center seat, and take in the experience. Over the years this process would repeat three or four times. Each and every time I was treated like royalty, and each time I got to know more and more people in the congregation. This connection even led to a spin-off project, where I would orchestrate an entire cantata for a composer in Detroit and my orchestrations would eventually be performed by the Detroit Symphony, under the direction of none other than Leonard Slatkin himself.

Just a couple of years ago, Stephen Glass moved on, and handed off his duties to Mr. Roi Azoulay, who in turn has kept up similar projects at the synagogue, as well as the musical relationship with me. He had heard my work from before his time, and knew he could trust my scoring abilities. And so came the call: “We are going to be honoring the music of several composers… Lewandowski, Rosenblatt, Alman…”

Because of my experience explained herein, this is why I was not worried.

  • I had to do it extremely fast. This was not a problem; I’d done similar work while having a very small child or two in the house. (I have four children.)
  • I had to orchestrate from just choral scores. Again, given my work doing “take-downs,” this was relatively easy in comparison.
  • The orchestrations needed to fit a certain listener “comfort level.” Well, I guess that meant no tango! And also, because I had been to the synagogue several times, I had witnessed their tastes first-hand.

In case it is of interest, here is a link from one of the orchestrations (at a separate performance):

Avinu Malkenu
By Eliyahu (Elias) Schnipeliasky/ Traditional/ Raymond Goldstein/ Azi Schwartz.
Orchestrated by Jim Stephenson.

But here is the big reason why I wish to share all of this. Everyone always wonders how we composers (can) make a living. Yes, there are the commissions we get from big orchestras, the band world (for another post), and international soloists. But it’s these other “side jobs” that give our lives meaning and depth. (I hate to describe them as side jobs, but it seems the most apt phrase in describing a career as a composer. And yet these kinds of jobs are the ones that no one knows we’re doing and that no one can prepare you for in college.)

I knew nothing about the Jewish faith or Jewish music. But because of my experiences with Erich Kunzel—having to work quickly, under duress (kids/very little sleep), with little source material, and knowing the audience expectations, and because of my upbringing and music in my house, because I said yes that first time and on several subsequent occasions—my life has become more enriched. And because of that, I have made a habit of saying yes almost whenever possible, because I am now addicted to exploring as much of what I don’t know as anyone will entrust me to do.

I can’t imagine going through life any other way.



Jim Stephenson is a full-time, self-published composer based in the Chicago area. He has nearly 200 compositions to his credit (averaging almost 20 per year) for musicians/audiences of all ages and levels, and his arrangements are still performed annually by nearly 100 orchestras. Upcoming premieres include the Minnesota Orchestra, the St. Louis Symphony, and a Chattanooga Symphony performance of his Violin Concerto. He is also the next composer featured on BandQuest, a series for middle-school bands, sponsored by the American Composers Forum.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

One thought on “Choosing the Three-Letter Response Over the Two-Letter One

  1. Neva Pilgrim

    Very inspiring! These experiences need to be heard by other composers, especially those just out of grad school. A life as a professional musician is, and should be, an adventure.


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