Podcast transcription: Jamie Erekson/James W. McConkie
Glen Nelson: Hello everybody and welcome to the first podcast of the Mormon Arts Center. I'm your host Glen Nelson in New York. In today's episode, we'll be telling the story of one of the great what-ifs of Mormon Arts: the life and music of composer James Wilson McConkie. Sitting in the studio with me--and by studio I mean my studio apartment--is Jamie Erekson, grandson of McConkie, who is currently bringing to life the music of this forgotten LDS composer. McConkie is almost completely unknown now, but in the 1950s, he was poised for a major career in American classical music. He earned a PhD in Composition at Columbia University in 1950 and then went to Paris to study with the legendary teacher Nadia Boulanger. Then tragedy struck at the age of 32. So welcome Jamie. I'm really excited to be with you here today. How does James fit into the McConkie family? So as I understand it, Bruce R. McConkie is his brother. Is that right?
Jamie Erekson: Yes, his older brother. So James was the third child. Bruce is the oldest. Then there was Brit France--Britain actually named, after our allies in World War One. And then James was the third child, and he had a younger sister, Margaret and two younger brothers, Oscar and William.
Glen Nelson: Okay. So James was born in 1921?
Jamie Erekson: Yes.
Glen Nelson: You know, I don't really think of the McConkie family as a musical family.
Jamie Erekson: No, no. It was pretty clear, almost from the beginning, that he was a family anomaly. His mom used to tell Bruce Bible stories at bedtime, and James just wanted music. No one in the family could even hold a tune so they'd turn on the Victrola, and he'd stand in his trundle bed, and he just listened attentively until eventually he would lay down and fall asleep.
Glen Nelson: I once went to a state conference, and Elder McConkie was the visiting authority, and he didn't sing any of the hymns. I was the organist, and it really struck me. And then somebody mentioned that to him and he said, "Oh, you don't want to hear me sing!" Your family had put together a short documentary film that interviewed each other about James's life. And as I heard some of the surviving members of the family talk, it was like they couldn't figure out, even now, how different he was from them.
Jamie Erekson: Yeah. You know, the other boys would play sports and James would be inside practicing piano, too afraid to hurt his fingers.
Glen Nelson: Let's get an overview of his life. In 1944, he married Gwendolyn Wirthlin, who was the sister of David Wirthlin. And then he served for..., I don't know how long... he served in the military, is that right, after his wedding?
Jamie Erekson: Before and after. So after his mission, he enlisted because he felt a moral obligation to fight. He really felt like it was a fight between good and evil. He actually had the opportunity to have a safe job as a chaplain in the States, but he decided to go for the job as a radio operator because he wanted to be in there and fight. So he enlisted, and then on a brief leave of absence that was slightly extended by him going AWOL for a day, he married Gwendolyn Bitner Wirthlin.
Glen Nelson: Oh, those McConkies. Ok, yeah. AWOL McConkie: that's gonna stick. Okay. Do we know when he started composing? I mean, I understand that he played the piano for a long time, even as a child.
Jamie Erekson: Yes. So he started studying piano when he was six, and then by the time he was ten, he was studying composition at the McCune School of Music in Salt Lake. He was also teaching his own private studio at that time when he was 10 years old. And there's this story where I guess he would get pretty frustrated. He was known to get frustrated with his students. And so his mom would come in during the lessons, and she'd pull his ear to remind him to be patient. So he was teaching at a young age, and then by the age of 18 he graduated with a Master's in Composition from the McCune School of Music.
Glen Nelson: Some people don't know what the McCune School was, but in Utah, it was just the premier place to go. An extraordinary number of very fine composers in the Church have come from that school, and performers as well. It doesn't surprise me that he has that connection, but then he came to New York.
Jamie Erekson: Yeah, so then he went on his mission first and then...
Glen Nelson: Where did he serve?
Jamie Erekson: The New England States. So that was actually a really formative musical education for him too because missions were different back then, not quite so structured, and he was far from his roots as a young boy in Moab and Monticello. Now he was walking around the streets in New York City. He was going to concerts. He was exposed to some of the greatest performers of this time, and so he would also actually write a fugue every week that he'd then perform on the radio, the local radio station, so he was still composing while he was on his mission, honing his musicianship. After his mission, he came back to Salt Lake City, actually got a BA in Philosophy at the U, then he went to Columbia.
Glen Nelson: You know, before we get too far into his Columbia school story, it kind of mirrors your path. We haven't talked about you at all. So who are you in connection to this guy and why are you in New York right now?
Jamie Erekson: I'm his grandson, so I'm his youngest daughter's son, and I'm studying Music Composition.
Glen Nelson: Okay. And your name?
Jamie Erekson: Jamie. James, named after him.
Glen Nelson: When you were growing up, how aware were you of your grandfather's music and his story?
Jamie Erekson: I was very aware. It's a story that's always been present and that isn't often told.
Glen Nelson: Alright, so this is what I understand about the Columbia studies, and you'll tell me what I'm missing. He came here in the late 40s, his PhD thesis at Columbia was titled, "The Keyboard Suites of Bach: A Consideration of the Horizontal and Vertical Elements Found Therein."
Jamie Erekson: A real page turner.
Glen Nelson: Super page turner--249 of those pages. Have you ever seen that dissertation?
Jamie Erekson: I have. I haven't read it yet. I feel like now I could actually understand it.
Glen Nelson: Listening to his music. Do you get a Bach influence?
Jamie Erekson: Oh definitely. I think every piece of his that I've heard hearkens back to Bach. Bach was his greatest influence. Obviously, he wrote his dissertation on Bach's keyboard suites. He also, there's this entry in his journal when he's going off to war, and he's wondering if he's going to die or not. And then he writes, "Well, if I die, I hope I'll be able to sing in Bach's choir.
Glen Nelson: I was aware of this connection, but I didn't know how literal it would be. The Mormon Arts Center had a little concert in January, and we played a few works by McConkie, and one of the excerpts was from the "Sonatina" that he created in 1948 to 1950. One of the movements is neoclassical. I mean it's almost.., it's not cut and pasted; it's original, you can tell, but there's a lot more influence than just at a general respect for Bach.
Jamie Erekson: Definitely.
Glen Nelson: All right, so after Columbia, then what happened to him?
Jamie Erekson: So it was a really interesting time because he had his second child a year before he received his PhD, and then they decided to move to Europe. To their parent's dismay, right, because this was a very..., it was an unstable time.
Glen Nelson: 1950.
Jamie Erekson: Yeah. So the Korean War was about to begin, and Europe was still struggling to get over devastation of World War II. But James had received a Fulbright to study in France, so they moved their family to a little villa outside of Paris, and there he'd spend the next year of his life in intense study with two of the most revered musicians of the 20th century: Arthur Honneger and Nadia Boulanger.
Glen Nelson: For people who don't recognize Nadia's name, her list of students is kind of a Who's Who in music. I mean, I'm not an expert by any stretch, but I did a little bit of Wiki-level research this morning. So she was the daughter of a concert pianist and a Russian princess. Comes in handy. She was a pianist and studied with Gabriel Fauré, and she was a close friend of Stravinsky, too. But get a look at some of her students: Aaron Copland, Marc Blitzstein, Philip Glass, Roy Harris, Elliot Carter, Virgil Thompson, David Diamond, Astor Piazzola, Michel Lagrand, Burt Bacharach, Gian Carlo Menotti, Thea Musgrave... a long long list. To imagine American music without those people is kind of a radical thing. So when we say that McConkie studied with Honneger and Boulanger, what does that mean? Did he have frequent studies? Was it part of a program? Do we know?
Jamie Erekson: With Nadia Boulanger, it was at the Paris Conservatory, and then he studied at another French school with Honneger, and it's a name that I can't pronounce, but he got into the program and he took private composition lessons once a week with Nadia Boulander and then the three lessons a week studying accompaniment, score reading, theory. She actually gave him hour-long lessons instead of the required half-hour lessons. And they actually developed a very close friendship.
Glen Nelson: When I was out in Utah--again for this concert in January--I met your mom and your aunt and uncle, and they talked about Boulanger that she was close with the family.
Jamie Erekson: Yeah. Yeah.
Glen Nelson: I think they said--I'm getting this wrong, probably--but I think she considered herself to be their godmother.
Jamie Erekson: Yeah, she was known to be a really tough person to work with. I think have a quote here. So James described her as "ruthless, nothing but results satisfy her. And if you can't do it, it indicates that you simply are not a good musician to her. After three months of struggle, I'm beginning to get a little facility in some of the things." So it was a struggle for him at first. And then she started to really enjoy his music and developed this friendship with him. And when my mom was born (Michelle), then Boulanger claimed her as a godchild. We have a letter of her asking about Michele, claiming her.
Glen Nelson: Yeah, that's very cool. I can't imagine what it must've been like for this American who had some exposure to things, but you know, you have to remember that in the 1950s, it's not like you could go to iTunes and hear an unlimited amount of music. So I suspect that everywhere he went, he was exposed to more and more and more music. And then to be in this circle all of a sudden, he must have thought that, you know, he was on the edge of something big, right? I mean, do we have an idea how ambitious he was as a composer?
Jamie Erekson: He was ambitious. They actually--Honneger and Boulanger--wanted him to stay longer, to take another year of study because Honneger had some ideas for performing his music in Europe. But James decided it was time to stop procrastinating and due to the unstable world situation, he called it. And so he wanted to get back to the States. So he decided to come back, and he was entering competitions. We know he wanted to win the Prix de Rome. He wanted to write an opera. He had a long list dreams.
Glen Nelson: Do you have any idea of how much of his music was performed, if any?
Jamie Erekson: It was performed. While he was in his doctoral program at Columbia, he was also the music director for a large Manhattan congregation on 81st Street. And he put on a special musical services, sometimes Handel's Messiah or Fauré's Requiem, but he'd also performed his stuff. And some of these services were broadcast nationally or throughout the city of New York. And so he had performances in New York while he was studying. And then when he came back from Paris, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performed some of his work, and different ensembles in Minnesota where he ended up teaching, they performed his work, but he was just starting to become a well-known figure in the Minnesota region.
Glen Nelson: He's only 30. I mean, I don't know how much music you've written. How old are you?
Jamie Erekson: I'm 28.
Glen Nelson: Okay. So I don't know how much you've written, roughly his age, but the scores that I see look quite ambitious. You mentioned Minnesota. What do you mean? Why was he in Minnesota?
Jamie Erekson: He accepted a position as an assistant professor of Composition at the University of Minnesota. It was a very large university, I believe there were around 58,000 students there at the time. Also the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, they rehearsed on campus every day, and they would annually perform with different ensembles at the university. So James also had the opportunity to conduct the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra as well as the various choir groups there. So that was a big draw for him.
Glen Nelson: He was a fine pianist...
Jamie Erekson: Yes.
Glen Nelson: ...and composer, and he wanted to be a conductor as well?
Jamie Erekson: He was a conductor mostly of choral music. He was very interested in piano music, obviously, and choral music. The interesting thing is a lot of times composers will grow up, you know, learning their instrument and performing and then at some point they'll pivot into mostly focusing on composing. But throughout all of this, James is continually performing.
Glen Nelson: Well, why don't we take a look at a little bit of his music? There's one score I have in front of me. This is called "Sonatina for Piano." And at the end of it, he's marked the dates and where it was written. It's 1948 through 1951 New York, Paris, Minneapolis. The triumvirate artistic capitols. But the thing that I noticed about it is this is pretty difficult music. You have a recording of him playing this piece, is that right?
Jamie Erekson: Yes, an original recording.
Glen Nelson: It's a three movement work. So let's listen to the last movement and then talk about it [excerpt played].
Glen Nelson: Tell me what your thoughts are about it. I mean, you're a musician. Do you play the piano, yourself?
Jamie Erekson: I do.
Glen Nelson: Could you play this?
Jamie Erekson: Maybe give me a few years. My wife's playing it.
Glen Nelson: Tell me what your thoughts are as you're listening through this music and what you think he was successful in.
Jamie Erekson: Well, you definitely hear Bach, right? You hear the counterpoint. But you hear different intervals, different harmonies, right? You can hear fourths and fifths. You get his own flavor.
Glen Nelson: He's a jazzy guy. There's a lot of rhythmic vitality to this.
Jamie Erekson: A lot of syncopation and rhythmic drive.
Glen Nelson: These are handwritten manuscripts rather than computer-generated things that contemporary composers are familiar with, and it's a very clean score. I mean, I don't know if it was written out in manuscript form in some other place and just transcribed into this. But it's very precise. Actually, it's quite beautiful, you know, just from a visual standpoint, but it has a lot of dynamics, and it ends with a punch.
Jamie Erekson: Yeah, it does. It's a very fiery piece. I found an old review of a critic writing about James's performance of this piece in Minnesota, and this was in the Minneapolis Star, and it said, "James McConkie's piano Sonatina was one of the most vivid and stylistically assured pieces on the program. A three movement work compact and rapid in idiom reflecting a bit of the swift epigrammatic manner of French modern. Incidentally, McConkie's pianism was as brilliant and light fingered as his composition." I think as you can hear, I mean it's really tough piece to play, but actually while he was at Columbia he was studying with Carl Freiberg, he studied with Clara Schumann and was good friends with Brahms, so James was very talented pianist.
Glen Nelson: So this is the third movement of this work, "Sonatina." But what are the other two movements like?
Jamie Erekson: The first one's fast, but it's got a little more humor in it. That one's a little more jazzy, and then the second movement is really beautiful. It's a slow movement. It's very simple. It's based on some arpeggiated chords and it's really beautiful.
Glen Nelson: There's another score here. Let's look at it.
Jamie Erekson: These are pieces that he wrote for his children, "James Marches Around the Room," and then "A Night Song for Michele," and "I waltz with Kathy."
Glen Nelson: And when were these done? "Winter 1952. Minneapolis, Minnesota." So your mom is Michele. So the second work is hers. I love the idea that composers are writing music for their family members. I'm sure it echoes what's going on. I mean it says here, "Jamie marches around the room." I'm sure this would have been your uncle James, right?
Jamie Erekson: Yes.
Glen Nelson: James Wilson McConkie II?
Jamie Erekson: Yes.
Glen Nelson: I wonder how much access they have to this music. Are there recordings of it? I mean, did they grow up hearing any of this music?
Jamie Erekson: I don't believe there are recordings. Not that I've heard, and I think they've heard a couple of performers playing through them, but not much more than that.
Glen Nelson: Okay. So he's in Minneapolis now. He's a professor. All three children are born and then churchwise... This was sort of strange to me. I was doing a little bit of research about your family and especially the uncles and aunts. It seems like James was sort of the spiritual one of the family. I mean we think of Elder Bruce R. McConkie as being a spiritual one, but I was told that James was sort of the hope of the family, spiritually.
Jamie Erekson: I think they thought James would be the one who would really put the family on the map. He'd be the famous one.
Glen Nelson: And in 1951 he was serving in the Church as the district president--so in Minnesota, that's the North Central States mission. Now let's talk about the tragic part of his life. What happened to him next in Minnesota?
Jamie Erekson: During the polio epidemic of 1953, his two daughters, Kathy and Michele, they disregarded their parents' instructions, and they went out to visit a neighbor boy who had fallen ill. They ended up getting polio. Both daughters contracted polio, following quickly by Jamie, his seven year old son. Jamie's health plummeted, and he was quickly hospitalized. And everyone was careful to keep their distance, but before Jamie left for the hospital, James hugged him and gave him a kiss. Jamie would eventually recover after months of rehabilitation. He learned how to walk again, but two weeks later, James passed away after spending the last few days of his life in an iron lung.
Glen Nelson: Oh my goodness! Your grandfather was only 32...
Jamie Erekson: 32.
Glen Nelson: ...years old, a wife and three kids.
Jamie Erekson: Yes.
Glen Nelson: What did the family do? I mean, did they stay in Minnesota? Where did they go?
Jamie Erekson: I believe they moved back to Utah, and then Gwen moved her family back to New York, and she ended up getting her degree at Columbia, and she became a teacher.
Glen Nelson: Whenever we talk about composers, especially composers who pass away young, my thought is always, what is their musical legacy? So let's talk first about what that means in your family. I mean, here was this person that they thought very highly of, obviously as a human, but as a composer, I'm sure they all loved what he was doing or the trajectory of his career, at least. And then suddenly when it stops, what did they do physically with the scores and all of his papers?
Jamie Erekson: I don't believe a lot was done for a while. I think in the eighties, my uncle, he donated scores to the library at BYU, but they're in boxes.
Glen Nelson: I've talked with families of composers, and this idea of what to do with their scores and papers is really complex. They want to keep them, they want to protect them as part of their... part of their inheritance in a way, but they don't know what to do with it. I would imagine in your family and extended family, it was more complicated because they were grieving for him. And so as I understand it from your mom and aunt and uncle, they kind of boxed away all the music and put it aside. They didn't try to get it performed much, and it kind of disappeared.
Jamie Erekson: Yeah, that's true. It's like I said, it's, it's a story in the family that everyone knows, but you don't talk about it because there's still so much pain. And it was really interesting actually doing the research for this. As I was researching and as I was going through his journals, as I had this constant dialogue with my mom about her memories, and I was writing it up, when I started writing about his death, I just started sobbing. It was really interesting because I never, you know, I've never met him, but I still feel this connection to him, and I still feel this pain, and I think partially it's because I know how much pain my mom feels, and I love her, but also part of it feels like my own pain. This man who was my granddad and I never knew him, and that's not fair.
Glen Nelson: I mean, you're his namesake, and you're following in his career, and you're getting graduate degrees in the same field he did.
Jamie Erekson: It's interesting because I was looking at his notes at Columbia, and his notes from his program at the Paris Conservatory, and the stuff he was studying, it's what I'm studying, it's the same assignments because a lot of conservatories in the U.S. actually pattern their curriculum after the Paris Conservatory model. So it's interesting to seeing what he was doing, and it would be great to give him a call and ask for advice on some of my assignments, and you know, "How am I doing on this counterpoint?"
Glen Nelson: Well it really does feel to me like this great, what-if story. I mean, with his connections in Utah, and what would eventually happen with his brother in the Quorum of the Twelve, and his own talent--had he continued on, I can't imagine that his music wouldn't be well known by everybody who's a member of the Church, at the very least.
Jamie Erekson: Yeah.
Glen Nelson: It's hard to know. One of the things that I read, a little bit from his journal, and he wrote a letter his wife when when he was serving in the military about politics.
Jamie Erekson: [Laughs.]
Glen Nelson: You know where I'm going. I have an excerpt of it. I'm going to read it. He was stationed abroad, and he says, "My dearest Gwen, do not think me untrue to the brethren because I disagree with them politically..." So he's a Democrat.
Jamie Erekson: Yes, yes.
Glen Nelson: He says, "We are one on gospel principals and perhaps diametrically opposed in other things, but as far as I'm concerned, my thinking on politics is just as valid as their own. As a matter of fact, I think I'm dead right in my political views and some of them are dead wrong, but thinking that does not make me disloyal to them. That is the thing to remember. At one time, I thought it might take a little time, but eventually I'd bring you about to the light politically, but I have not harbored such an idea since leaving the States. I'm never going to attempt it. With all my love, I remain your fervent, democratic husband."
Jamie Erekson: [Laughs.}
Glen Nelson: Can you tell me a little bit about the politics of your families and how he might have fit into that?
Jamie Erekson: Yeah, so the McConkies were committed Democrats. And his dad Oscar--he was a lawyer, he was a judge. He actually, he ran for governor and lost obviously, as all McConkies do in Utah.
Glen Nelson: Your family is cursed. Sorry about that.
Jamie Erekson: So yeah, he was a committed Democrat, and Gwen on the other hand came from a very conservative family with strong Republican ties. So it was definitely a source of contention in their marriage, but they had a very happy marriage.
Glen Nelson: Why were they democrats in the first place? Not that that's obviously a good thing or a bad thing, but is there a historical precedent for it?
Jamie Erekson: The story goes that I guess back in the day, the Church wanted more political diversity and so they drew a line, and the people on the one side of the road were Republicans and people on the other were Democrats, and we were on the Democrat side.
Glen Nelson: But I just thought that that was just sort of in name only. They really identified...
Jamie Erekson: They really did.
Glen Nelson: I talked with a couple of pianists about James's music and why they think it's not better known, and the first thing that they mentioned to me was the technical requirements are pretty high. It's a lot, a lot to learn and a lot to get through safely. Do you have a comment on that? I mean because you know from your own experience what it's like to play it.
Jamie Erekson: Yeah, it's tough. It really is. And also they're handwritten manuscripts, so legibility is also an issue sometimes.
Glen Nelson: So then the choral work, there are no published scores?
Jamie Erekson: Not really. I think there's one, but no. He was just starting to try and get his stuff published.
Glen Nelson: Ok. Wow. So in a way, if somebody wanted to learn more about his music, it would be pretty hard to do that. Like, where would they go if they wanted to learn more about it?
Jamie Erekson: I guess they'd go me or someone else in the family. There's some music at BYU library at this point.
Glen Nelson: Alright, so they've deposited his scores at the Harold B. Lee Library. They have a fantastic music collection there, and you can make an appointment and just go, but maybe that's something that your family might consider. What about publishing?
Jamie Erekson: Yeah.
Glen Nelson: Do you want to put any of these things in print?
Jamie Erekson: Yes, definitely.
Glen Nelson: It's quite a wide range of music that he composed. We've talked mostly about piano music, but what else is in his body of work?
Jamie Erekson: He composed for orchestra and some small chamber ensembles, string quartets, quite a bit of choral music, quite a few vocal solos, vocal-piano pieces...
Glen Nelson: Are they like art songs or they more devotional?
Jamie Erekson: Art songs and some folk songs.
Glen Nelson: Really?
Jamie Erekson: But he was definitely most interested in writing for the piano and for voice.
Glen Nelson: So in James's day he was an outlier being a musician in a family that wasn't particularly musical, but that can't be said anymore of the McConkies. There a whole bunch of your clan that are fantastic musicians, right?
Jamie Erekson: Yeah. My cousin Kelly's a professional cellist...
Glen Nelson: And she plays with the Zion String Quartet...
Jamie Erekson: Yeah, and the Orchestra on Temple Square, and my other cousin, she also studied Composition at BYU. So yes, it's a big part of our family culture.
Glen Nelson: Is there something lasting that you'd like to leave with listeners about your grandfather and his music?
Jamie Erekson: He had a lot of love. He loved his family. He loved the Gospel. He loved his music. And I think that's something that you can feel, something that I feel when I listen to his music, especially when I listen to the song that he wrote for my mom.
Glen Nelson: Let's all listen to that piece. It's called "A Night Song for Michele," written in 1952. That's one year before McConkie's passing. It will be performed by Emily Erekson, who is Jamie's wife [excerpt played].
Glen Nelson: On behalf of the Mormon Art Center, I want to thank you for listening. It's a bit of a scary thing to start a podcast series. We want to shine a light on contemporary and historic artists who have Mormon connections, 1830 to the present, worldwide. And with so much ground to cover, you can imagine the anxiety of trying to do a good and thorough job at it. We'll make mistakes. Hopefully we'll get better and better. We'd love to hear your comments. Email us at email@example.com. The compositions you've heard in this episode are "Sonatina for Piano" (the entire third movement), and excerpts from the first and second movements that began and will end this episode, and "A Night Song for Michele." Both were composed by James W. McConkie and are used with permission. Performers were McConkie himself in a vintage recording and Emily Erekson, respectively. This interview took place March 9, 2018 in New York City. Our sound engineer is Robert Willis. We hope you've enjoyed our first in a monthly series of interviews with Mormon artists and discussions on topics of Mormon Arts. You can learn more about our organization by going to our website, mormonartscenter.org. I'm Glen Nelson in New York. Goodbye.