A box of Barnes: Group records all professor’s symphonies

LAWRENCE — Like thespians who refer to “Macbeth” as “the Scottish play,” classical music composers have a superstition about the number of symphonies they may write. Beethoven and Mahler died shortly after completing their respective ninth symphonies.

So for 74-year-old James Barnes, professor emeritus of music at the University of Kansas, his Ninth Symphony will be his last, he said. He doesn’t want to tempt fate.

Now, though, Barnes has a boxed set of all nine of his symphonies, performed and recorded last year and released this year by the Osaka Shion Wind Orchestra. The 70-piece group rehearsed and performed for a month under the baton of the dean of the KU School of Music, Paul Popiel.

Barnes, then still recovering from gallbladder surgery, couldn’t make the trip himself, but said Popiel “knows my music better than anyone else.” The two men have worked together for the past 14 years, since Popiel joined the music faculty.

Barnes has been a fixture at KU for more than 50 years, arriving as a tuba-playing junior high music camper from Oklahoma in 1963. Beginning in 1967, he attended undergraduate and graduate school here, receiving two degrees in music composition. He then began teaching and leading various bands at KU in 1975. He took emeritus status in 2015 but is still a familiar figure in Murphy Hall.

Popiel said there is an uncanny connection between Barnes and the Japanese classical music community.

“In Japan, he almost can't walk down the street without being recognized,” Popiel said. “He's very well known. His compositions really appeal to their classical music sense.

“There's a pretty famous story of his Third Symphony, which is his best known,” Popiel said. “It was commissioned by the United States Air Force Band. Just before it was to be premiered in 1996, Newt Gingrich shut down the government. Therefore, the Air Force Band couldn't travel to Roanoke, Virginia, for the premiere of this symphony at the Virginia Music Educators Convention ... so the piece sat on a shelf for a year.

“Jim happened to be in Japan in the fall of 1996 and ran into the conductor of Osaka Shion, who asked, ‘Can we take a look at the piece?’ So it ended up getting premiered by what was then known as the Osaka Symphonic Band, later renamed Osaka Shion Wind Orchestra. So that piece has sort of an aura around it, particularly in Japan, because they know his most famous symphony has deep ties to Japanese bands.”

In 2018, Popiel led a consortium of more than two dozen academic and other music leaders who came together to commission Barnes’ Ninth Symphony, which was premiered by the KU Wind Ensemble at the Lied Center of Kansas before being performed nationwide by other college music groups.

Popiel said Barnes’ music could be called neo-romantic for its “beautiful, memorable, singable melodies.”

“That is not where a lot of classical music has been in the last 20 or 30 years,” Popiel said. “Some critics may say Jim’s music is dated because it has melody. But I’m not sure that's a good criticism. 

“I think Barnes’ music’s most shining attribute is how likable it is the first time you hear it ... He is very contemporary," Popiel said. "You can hear jazz harmonies, complex counterpoint. There is considerable dissonance. ... It's certainly 21st century modern music but in a way that's very marketable and audience friendly.”

Popiel said when he came to KU in 2010, “I had the opportunity to do a lot more of Jim’s music. It's the symphonies in particular that are really challenging pieces, and before I came to KU, I didn't have a band that could play a lot of his music. So over the last 14 years, I have been one of the champions of his music.”

Popiel said he had to coax Barnes into giving Osaka Shion permission to record his First Symphony, written as Barnes’ master’s thesis, because in retrospect Barnes considered it an “early, immature work.” But the boxed set would not be complete without it, Popiel said, and so Barnes relented and, in fact, rescored and improved the First Symphony in the summer of 2022.

Popiel said the recording project was conceived as part of Osaka Shion’s centennial anniversary celebration.

“They got a grant and some crowdfunding to take on one of the most ambitious projects in our field — recording all nine of Jim's symphonies,” Popiel said. “That's never been done before, and it's epic — huge forces, big orchestras and almost six hours of music. They performed a series of four concerts to record all nine symphonies live."

In December 2023, Osaka Shion traveled to Chicago for the convention called the Midwest Clinic, the largest annual band and orchestra convention in the world. There were 18,000 attendees in 2023, and Barnes was invited to guest conduct Osaka Shion at its formal concert.

Popiel said it was a thrill for the KU delegation attending the clinic to see the esteem in which Barnes is held by peers worldwide.

A five-CD boxed set of the recordings was released in January by Osaka Shion in Japan. In addition, the set should be available soon through Keiser-Southern Music. A possible global release to streaming music services is still being negotiated.

Tue, 02/13/2024


Rick Hellman

Media Contacts

Rick Hellman

KU News Service