Dr. John L. Cornelius takes ‘PAX’ from Murrah to Carnegie Hall

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Tenor Kenneth Gayle in the world premiere of "PAX."

On March 9, 2023, John L. Cornelius II, a Murrah High School and Jackson State University graduate, will debut his latest work in New York City. Entitled “PAX,” the work will be performed at the famed Carnegie Hall in the Weill Recital Hall at 8 p.m.

A member of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), Cornelius’ output includes musicals, operas, chamber works, orchestral works, and song cycles.  The piece was commissioned by the Apollo Chamber Players and will be a part of their 15th year anniversary tour in 2023. However, Mississippi is not a stop on the tour at present.  “PAX” had its world premiere in Houston, Texas, in 2022. 

“PAX” is composed for tenor, spoken word, and string quartet. It is a setting of two lesser-known poems by Langston Hughes (“Give Us Our Peace” and “The Dove”) with poetic juxtapositions by Houston’s poet laureate Outspoken Bean (Emmanuel Bean) (who happens to be one of Cornelius’ former students from Prairie View A&M University).  

“PAX” explores the meaning of peace, what it takes to maintain it, what society does with it, and how fragile and fleeting it is. “These two poems by Hughes were unfamiliar to me when I was first commissioned but I was intrigued by the way Hughes addressed and answered the questions of peace in multiple ways after VE Day,” commented Cornelius. Victory in Europe Day marked the end of World War II in Europe.

Cornelius reports that the all new original music for “PAX” he wrote took him approximately three months to complete. All rehearsals were held in Houston where cast members happened to be, including the tenor, Kenneth Gayle, whom Cornelius had worked with previously.   

Cornelius is no newcomer to theatre in the Big Apple and across the nation. He’s very familiar to audiences of the arts in Houston as an arranger/composer with the Ensemble Theater of Houston, Adventure Theater in Glen Echo Park, Main Street Theatre, Theater Under the Stars, and Theater Under the Stars’ Humphreys School of Musical Theater.  

Additionally, he has written and collaborated with Michael J. Bobbitt and Lyric Theater including The Bingo Long Traveling All Stars and Motor Kings, The Yellow Rose of Texas, The Stephen Schwartz Project, Mirandy and Brother Wind, and Say It Ain’t So!   The Yellow Rose of Texas and Going the Distance are a commission from the Smithsonian Institute about the lives and careers of Wilma Rudolph and Jesse Owens. Mirandy and Brother Wind received a 2010 NEA grant, premiered in 2011 in Washington, DC and is published by New Plays for Young Audiences. His latest theatrical works are Three Little Birds, which adapts the catalog of Bob Marley into a modern fairy tale, and Garfield: The Musical With Cattitude. 

He has written several works exploring the legacy of the African-American spiritual: Lis’en to de Lam’s, a work for soprano duet and piano, Three Spirituals for Tenor and Strings; My Kinfolks Got Wings (woodwind quintet); Conversion, a cycle for tenor and chamber ensemble; and a host of choral settings. Of Cornelius’ chamber works, Charles Ward in the Houston Chronicle wrote, “The highlight … was a set of three spirituals arranged for tenor and string orchestra by composer John Cornelius. In “O Fix Me,” the juxtaposition of an elegant, long melody floating over a sharp, jazzy string riff was electric.” 

Other recent works include “Chansons Creoles,a song cycle whose text is by gens de colour of 19th century Louisiana; “Sonata of Attitudes” for 2 horns and piano; “The Kashmere Cycle,” a song cycle commissioned by Houston Grand Opera’s HGOCo.; “Fulfilled, a Passion Week cantata; “What Wings They Were,” a commission from HGOCo; “Magnificat, Mary’s Song of Joyfor First Presbyterian Church of Kingwood, TX; “Cowboy Songs” for tenor and piano; “Sweet Freedom’s Songfor bass, violin, and piano; and “Colored Carnegie” (dance suite). 

In a personal interview, Cornelius said, “I received my early musical training at Jackson Public Schools and at Jackson State University. Even when I got my doctorate at Rice University, I worked under Dr. Samuel Jones, a native Mississippian. As a teenager, I attended APAC in Jackson from the 10th-12th grade working with Ms. Sandra Polanski.  I’m very proud to say that I trained with Dr. Karen Laudengayer at JSU and was a member of the Sonic Boom of the South marching band playing trumpet under the directorship of Mr. Dowell Taylor. I also had the distinct pleasure of playing jazz gigs with Mr. Russell Thomas while at JSU. Additionally, I studied piano with Ms. Ethel Woods as an 8th grader.  

“On a personal note, I’ve been surrounded and influenced by several notable persons at JSU throughout my life as my maternal grandmother, Mrs. Celestine Cornelius, was a longtime nurse working in the JSU infirmary.  Several of my extended family members also attended and graduated from JSU. I pledged the Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. as a college student and attended numerous music summer camps at Thee I Love.”  

Dr. Cornelius’s parents both hail from Mississippi, Rev. John Cornelius (Bolton) and Mrs. Jean Odell Cornelius (Canton).  His maternal grandfather, Earnest “Frock” Odell, is a Bluesman cited on a Mississippi Blues Trail Marker in Canton.  

Apollo Chamber Players tickets can be obtained for “PAX” by visiting www.carnegiehall.org. 

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Dr. John L. Cornelius takes ‘PAX’ from Murrah to Carnegie Hall

By Brinda Fuller Willis
March 6, 2023