On his eighteenth birthday, Paul Frucht, who studied both Music Composition and Percussion at NYU Steinhardt and is a current adjunct professor, attended a rally for then-Senator Barack Obama in Washington Square Park. It was an inspiring event for the young college student who was just one month into his undergraduate studies at NYU.
Eleven years later, Frucht began developing A More Perfect Union, a symphony for baritone and orchestra based on six pivotal speeches of former president Barack Obama.
The piece intentionally rebuts the pessimistic, currently in-vogue narrative of American decline by musically asserting one of President Obama’s key messages throughout his tenure: that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.
The primary concern, as it is with all vocal pieces, was making sure that I was doing justice to the text. President Obama's speeches are written and constructed with such incredible elegance and I wanted to make sure that the musical ideas that recur throughout the piece would capture that elegance in a way that is immediate and accessible to the audience. The entire work closes with the moment President Obama sang "Amazing Grace" while giving the eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was killed at the Mother Emanuel AME Shooting in Charleston, SC in 2015. What was so incredible about that moment was how shocking it was to see the president sing on national television and yet at the same time, it felt so inevitable when it happened. That inevitably is something I think many, if not all, artists and creators chase – to make the audience feel as though the most meaningful moments in your work could not have happened any other way. Making sure that that moment in our piece, when he finally sings "Amazing Grace," feels as musically inevitable as it does dramatically (and did at the time it happened in real life) was the greatest challenge of writing this work. So I decided to deconstruct the melody to Amazing Grace and really find out what makes it tick, what makes it memorable, and what's in its "musical DNA" so-to-speak. I then took those raw musical elements in the tune and embedded them in the recurrent themes of the piece so that musically, the whole piece is just one giant melodic evolution to inevitably hearing "Amazing Grace," ideally matching the inevitably of that real-life moment.
This is an interesting question because "now" applies to the world this piece would have premiered in (April 2020) had the COVID-19 pandemic not happened, but it also applies to the world we currently occupy in which much has changed since when this work was largely completed in February 2020: a once a century pandemic, an historic election resulting in a change in presidential administration, and among the largest civil rights protests in American history. But one thing that has not changed is that we are a society in need of hope and deeply in need of unity in order to forge a path ahead. President Obama presented a path through his belief that to be American is to believe, hope, and push for a more perfect union. Those words and those ideas are, at least to me, still appealing, meaningful, and timely. The purpose of treating this subject musically was not partisan; on the contrary, it was to shed light on a responsibly optimistic path forward for American political culture as well as its musical one. As I mentioned, one function that classical music provides is to tell the stories of our time with a level of weight that is unique to the genre. By combining the drama and beauty of President Obama’s speeches with the gravitas that the orchestra and singer provide, our hope was to prove a symbiotic relationship between modern culture and classical music.
Does President Obama know about A More Perfect Union?
Yes, President Obama is aware of the project. A member of the audience asked Cody Keenan just that question at the preview event and Cody replied that he let him know after Cody had coffee with Yuga and me in November 2018. Cody said he told him that he had just met with these guys who were going to make a symphony out of his speeches, to which President Obama replied, "Really? That's cool! How do you that?"
I had such a unique and wonderful experience at NYU. Justin Dello Joio, I really have to say, is one of the most important people I've ever met in my life. He was the first person who ever told me unequivocally that I could be a composer. Without his genuine care, inspiration, miraculous talent and unique ability to convey it pedagogically, I simply would not be a composer.
I teach in the music theory program, teaching music theory and aural comprehension. I'm excited next semester to teach Theory IV fully in-person for the first time since 2019! It's one of my favorite courses to teach since we really get to explore more contemporary music and how harmony evolves in the 20th century. I also really enjoy teaching aural comprehension since the skills are so vital to a career in music performance of many kinds. Helping students master these skills is very fulfilling.
Tell us about your work with the Charles Ives Music Festival.
CIMF is based in Fairfield County, CT, where I grew up and honors the legacy of Charles Ives, also from Fairfield, through a series of chamber concerts focused on contemporary American music as well as educational events focused on providing a quality chamber music and orchestral experience for youth musicians. Our concerts feature performances by recent grads who hold positions in major orchestras and in touring chamber ensembles as as well as successful freelance and Broadway musicians. These musicians join us in Connecticut for two weeks and in addition to performing the concerts are the faculty working with our students in the educational program. I founded the music festival in 2015 and joined forces with our umbrella organization, the Western Connecticut Youth Orchestra, in 2019. This past summer, we had 70 participating musicians and performed the works of 2021 composer-in-residence Kati Agócs as well as other living composers including Matt Aucoin, Timo Andres, Robert Beaser, Derek Bermel, NYU alum Jon Cziner, Reena Esmail, George Meyer, Jessie Montgomery, Harriet Steinke, NYU faculty Shelley Washington and Julia Wolfe, and me.
Which composers have had the biggest impact on you?
This is so tough, but In addition to my two teachers, composers who are inspiring my work right now are Steven Stucky, John Corigliano, Melinda Wagner, Aaron Jay Kernis, Reena Esmail, Kevin Puts, Joseph Schwantner, Jacob Druckman, Amy Beach, Ravel, Stravinsky, Debussy, Brahms.
Watch an excerpt of “Eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney”
Watch an excerpt of “Address on the 50th Anniversary of the Selma, AL March”
Watch the full video from the preview event featuring NPR’s Suraya Mohamed in conversation with Frucht, Cohler, Keenan, and baritone Jorell Williams.