H. Leslie Adams
2015 LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT PRIZE IN MUSIC
When H. Leslie Adams’ parents signed him up for piano lessons at the age of four, they couldn’t have known it would lead to a lifelong career as an acclaimed composer of numerous works for solo instruments, songs, orchestral and theatrical works.
“They wanted to keep me active and not out on the streets as many kids were during the Depression,” says Leslie, who still lives in the Glenville home his parents bought in 1930, two years before he was born.
Today, he has nothing but fond recollections of an idyllic youth spent playing in the parks, absorbing the masterpieces at the Cleveland Museum of Art, getting his heart racing at amusement parks, watching movies with his mom, and being awed by the Metropolitan Opera when they performed for a week at Public Hall.
“I learned that what I wanted to express was beauty,” he explains. “Beauty is paramount, so the music’s got to be melodious and pretty, and not many composers can say that today.”
Moving into elementary school in the ‘40s, Leslie started collecting records of all types of music: jazz, pop and classical. He loved the music of the era, from the boogie-woogie piano that strengthened his wrists to the legato vocals of Crosby, Sinatra, Como, Shore and Fitzgerald. Of course, it was also the Golden Age of Composers: Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers, Hart, Kern.
“The 20th Century did music so well,” declares the man who once wanted to “sing like Bing.” “I would even say that after Ella recorded all the great composers’ songbooks, there was little place left to go. It was kind of finished.”
Leslie started taking voice lessons in junior high school and through his years at Glenville High School, where he sang in the choir performing many solos, and on weekends he sang in the Antioch Baptist Church choir. His choir director at Glenville, John Howard Tucker, was a graduate of Oberlin College and recommended it, so he auditioned for the conservatory and spent four years studying voice, piano and music education. He began studying composition his junior year, and in his senior year, he composed an orchestral score for a ballet. “It was very well-received,” he recalls. “That was the beginning of my composing career.”
After graduating in 1955, he landed a job as the Associate Musical Director at Karamu House and accompanied the troupe on its only European tour to perform two one-act operas. His dream had been to experience living in New York City, so after a year he moved
there, taking on odd jobs from clerk-typist to short-order cook to pay his rent. Then he started getting hired as an accompanist for actors, vocalists and dance companies, from the June Taylor Dancers to Robert Joffrey’s new ballet.
He composed two of his initial works in his 6th floor walkup on Second Avenue: Nightsongs and Five Millay Songs, both of which became top-sellers for him. He performed his works in two highly successful and critically acclaimed concerts at Steinway Hall in 1960 and Carnegie Recital Hall in 1961.
He went on to get his master’s degree at Long Beach State University. After a year as an Associate Music Director of a high school in Raton, NM, and a touring production of Weill’s “Lost in the Stars,” he took a teaching position at Florida University, but decided to pursue his doctorate at Ohio State University. He completed his classes, and then at his dissertation advisor’s suggestion, applied for a teaching position in the School of Music at the University of Kansas, where he ended up teaching from 1970 to 1979.
At that point, Leslie decided to forgo teaching and return to composing full-time. He came back to Cleveland in 1979. It took him four years, but in 1986, he completed his opera, Blake. “My opera turned out to be about slavery,” he says. “But I didn’t want to
write about slavery, so I made it about the universal desire for freedom, which is everyone’s story.”
From 1997 to 2007, he turned his attentions to writing Twenty-Six Etudes for Solo Piano, which were recorded by pianists Maria Thompson Corley (1-12) and Thomas Otten (13-26) and released on Albany Records last year. In November 2014, the two debuted the works live at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
“This work fulfilled a long-held ambition,” Leslie says. “Now, I am pleased and honored to win a Cleveland Arts Prize.”