Anthony Kelley takes music composition out of the ivory tower. 

The Composer Next Door

Joseph Wimbush scrunches up his face as if he is listening intently for a distant sound and tentatively seeks out a series of notes with his small hands. He grimaces when what he has played on the keyboard does not match the sound in his head, and his fingers fumble on the keys once again. ­ Anthony Kelley, Richmond's composer-in-residence, sits patiently at Wimbush's side, his own fingers trained upon a personal computer which is wired to the keyboard Wimbush plays. On the computer screen is the half-finished score of "Carnie," an original orchestral composition written by 10-year-old Wimbush.

"OK, Joseph," Kelley says as he senses Wimbush's growing frustration. "Sing it for me. I'll try to see if I can find the notes."

Wimbush, a member of the Richmond Boys Choir, opens his mouth and a sweet soprano melody warbles forth. Kelley effortlessly replicates the melody on the keyboard and the notes are instantly scored on the computer screen. Wimbush continues singing as if he could go on forever, as if there were an entire symphony trapped in his head.

"Nice, Joseph!" Kelley says with true admiration. "Man, that sounds a lot like Shostakovich."

As Kelley sets the computer to play back "Carnie," 17-year-old Ivy Newman arrives, a copy of her "Millennium Fugue" in hand. Fourteen-year-old Westley Steele soon follows, anxious to get to work on "Time Warp," a rhythmically complicated piano piece written in six-eight time.

"So what do you want to be when you grow up?" Newman, a senior at Richmond Community School, asks Wimbush, who attends William Fox Elementary School. "Do you want to be a composer or do you just want this to be a spare-time pursuit?"

"No," Wimbush answers seriously. "I want to be a composer."

As Steele, a skilled pianist, adds a series of measures to his piece, Newman points to her Oberlin T-shirt and confides that she is nervously waiting to hear if she has been accepted at the prestigious music conservatory. "I want to major in composition," she says. "Before I met Mr. Kelley, I was going to major in psychology at U.Va."

Every Wednesday afternoon for the past three years, this same scene has played out in Kelley's home studio as a parade of young Richmonders have tried their hand at musical composition. It is a small part of Kelley's official duties as composer-in-residence, but the weekly sessions have become one of the highlights of his experience here.

"They do this because they have things in their head that they have to get out," Kelley explains after the young composers have left. "Imagine having that in your head and not being able to confirm it in the world. Sometimes I'm blown away that these kids even care. What's their motivation to work with this abstract art form?"

Their motivation, it seems, is Kelley.

Kelley came to Richmond in 1996 through Meet the Composer, a national organization formed to ensure that "American cities and communities are familiar with the idea of an American composer living in their midst." In other words, to let people know the word "composer" does not exclusively describe a dead European guy named Bach or Beethoven.

"Just because Beethoven existed in the late 1700s and early 1800s does not mean he was writing a completely different kind of music from what I'm writing," Kelley says. "There are connections."

Kelley's three-year residency, most of which was funded by a grant from Meet the Composer, was made possible by a community partnership between the Boys and Girls Clubs of Richmond, the Richmond Public Library, the Richmond Symphony and Theatre IV.

He has remained in Richmond for an additional six months on a grant from the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation that has allowed him to continue the work he started with Meet the Composer. This summer, he will travel to Sweet Briar College on another grant to work with college students and young people to develop a composition combining the indigenous gospel and bluegrass music of the region. In the fall, Kelley will depart for Duke University, his alma mater, where he will accept a coveted tenure-track assistant professorship of music composition.

Kelley has composed a number of musical works during his residency in Richmond. For the Public Library, he's written a Library Anthem, set to words by poet Nikki Giovanni. For the Richmond Symphony, he's composed a seven-minute fanfare, "Themes and Fanfares for Unity." He's written numerous arrangements of songs for the Richmond Boys Choir and for In Harmony, the symphony's gospel music concert series. And last May, the symphony held the world premiere of Kelley's "Africamerica," a significant piano concerto written during the three years of his residency.

"Having a composer in the community is helpful at many different levels," says Michelle Walter, executive director of the Richmond Symphony. "First and foremost, it's advocacy of new music. There's nothing like knowing a real live composer to make you appreciate new music."

But it's hard to imagine that Kelley has had the time to write any new music during his time in Richmond, so committed to and involved is he with the partners that have sponsored his residency.

"He must have figured out how to manufacture more hours in the day than exist," marvels Clare Schapiro, president of the board of the Friends of the Richmond Public Library, and director of public relations for Theatre IV.

[image-1](Scott Elmquist / Style Weekly)Joseph Wimbush, 10, is a regular at Kelley's Wednesday afternoon composing group. "You start with young people," Kelley says. "If they don't have some sense of the relevancy of music, it's going to die."Kelley has been a musical adviser and mentor to the Richmond Boys Choir, which he has helped from its very beginnings. "He has been unquestionably the driving force behind this organization," says Artistic Director Billy Dye. "He and I did the very first auditions. ... The choir would not be where it is today without him. We are starting to be recognized not only as a cute group, but as a [serious] musical group."

Kelley has worked with children 7 to 17 from the Boys and Girls Clubs who have composed short pieces based on African-American folk tales for "Southern Sounds," a Richmond Symphony concert. He has masterminded "Musical Explorations" programs at the Richmond Public Library in which young children are introduced to music. And by many accounts, he has changed the lives of many of Richmond's children through music.

Schapiro readily admits that when she first heard the Richmond Public Library was getting a composer-in-residence, she thought it was a ridiculous notion. "I thought it was a stretch," she says. "What could a composer do for a library?" Through "Musical Explorations" she soon found out not only what a composer could do for a library, but what a composer like Kelley could do to change the life of a child, that of her son Felix.

"I watched Anthony Kelley lead my 4-year-old into this excitement and enthusiasm for music," she says. " It was riveting and amazing for me as a mother, and as someone deeply invested in the life of the library."

Felix, now 6, studies piano with Kelley; has performed in three piano recitals this year at St. Christopher's, where he attends first grade; he idolizes Leonard Bernstein and wants to be a conductor when he grows up.

"I think [Anthony's] sense of humor and his way of demystifying something that seems as ivory tower as classical music is very compelling and attractive," says Schapiro, who has become one of Kelley's closest friends.

"Anthony makes disciplined artistic pursuit just as compelling as playing with your Gameboy, watching MTV or hanging out with your friends," says Bruce Miller, co-founder and artistic director of Theatre IV. "There is real magic in the way Anthony communicates with, educates and inspires young people. I can honestly say I have never seen any artist more capable of sharing a passion for the arts with kids who are just getting their feet wet in the arts for the first time."

The symphony's Walter also has observed Kelley's ability to connect with kids. "We should have kept count of how many lives he's touched," she says, smiling. "We have gotten some letters from kids that have said 'He saved my life.' We got one from a 16-year-old girl at a public high school that said just that, and it is just an example of many.

"The act of composing is a solitary act, an intellectual pursuit, a creative pursuit — all of which is not necessarily reflected in the kind of person who can engage the community like Anthony does. He has changed the expectations I would have for a composer in areas other than composing. I don't think an ivory-tower composer could ever fly here after Anthony."

Jump to Part 1, 2,Part 2: A Serious Scholar


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