Concertmaster holds spotlight in new concerto by local composer

Shellie Kemp and James Sclater

A bright gaze ahead and a poignant look back — local composer James Sclater’s new concerto celebrating Shellie Brown Kemp’s rise to concertmaster with the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra ties past with present in a stirring tribute.

The premiere of Sclater’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra is a highlight of MSO’s Bravo concert “Heroines and Heroes,” January 27 at Thalia Mara Hall. The program opens with Rossini’s upbeat Overture to Italian Girl in Algiers and closes with Beethoven’s groundbreaking Eroica symphony. In-between, Sclater’s concerto provides the spotlight for Kemp to shine.

The work is layered with local and personal connections. Retired since 2010, Sclater was professor of music at Mississippi College for 40 years and a clarinetist with MSO from 1971 to 2000. He has had his compositions performed under three different MSO conductors.

Sclater fondly remembers seeing Kemp as a young violin student of MSO’s Mickey Davis, but really got to know her when she married pianist Tyler Kemp, a former student of his at MC and a fellow jazz player. Sclater gifted them with a piece, Angels, for an early anniversary.

“They just played it beautifully. She is a wonderful player,” he said. “They’re both so talented, it’s just amazing.”

“It’s one of my favorite pieces to play, and I’m not just saying that,” Kemp shared. “It’s very meaningful. Jimmy’s joy for us getting married and being a couple was so palpable.”

When the composer reached out to MSO Music Director and Conductor Crafton Beck about the possibility of doing a piece, “I said, ‘Look, I’m getting up in years,’” Sclater, now 80, recalled. “If I’m going to have an opportunity to do a piece with the orchestra, can I please do it soon?”

They met for coffee. When the logistics weren’t quite right for a finished piece Sclater shared, Beck asked, ‘What would you like to do?”

“Well, I’d like to do a piece for Shellie,” Sclater offered. “That’s it!” Beck said.

The concerto was commissioned by the choir at First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, the church Kemp grew up in, where she and Tyler Kemp wed, and where she still plays violin at special holiday services. She’s passionate about new music, and the challenge, enjoyment and fresh opportunity it brings for her own imprint.

Sclater’s concerto is at its most serious, and abstract, in the first movement, “Janus Ritual.” Its title is a nod to the ancient Roman god of beginnings and transitions. Janus is usually depicted with two faces, one looking forward and the other looking to the past — an apt image for a composition that does the same. The second movement, “Interrupted Elegy,” is a tip of the hat to MSO Concertmaster Emeritus Bob McNally, who passed in 2022. “Janus Festival Dance,” the third movement, is written in memory of violinist Mickey Davis, who created MSO’s string education program with Jackson Public Schools, and was a dear, early teacher of Kemp’s in both classical violin and fiddle.

“He was one of the most talented musicians I’ve ever known,” Sclater said of Davis. “He could play jazz, he could play bluegrass, he could play classical.” Bluegrass and jazz influences weave their way through the concerto’s final movement.

Kemp said Davis “really brought the fun to classical music, because of his love for jazz and fiddle. … I’m so grateful that I had him in my formative years, to show me that classical music could be fun like that.”

Sclater’s three-point aim was to write a piece that he’d want to hear, that would challenge Kemp, and that would provide the orchestra an interesting part to practice and have a good time with. “Hopefully, it will be something that she likes, the orchestra likes, and the audience likes.”

Kemp embraces the work’s personal touchstones, and its mythical resonance as a doorway between a rich past and a rewarding future. Premiering it is a thrill. “My interpretation is the only one so far, and that’s really fun and exciting, and why I like to play new music,” she said.

She cherishes, too, the connections to Sclater’s friendship, and to First Presbyterian Church. “It’s really dear to me that he would, and they would support this. It’s been a dream of mine to play a concerto with this specific orchestra my whole life,” she said. When she’d sub or play in MSO’s string section and watch guest violinists in front of the orchestra as soloists, “That’s what kept me going.

“It’s a great full-circle moment. And I’m so appreciative of all the ways that it’s being supported.”